Telling your kids about your decision to divorce is most probably one of the most difficult conversations you will ever have. You may be anxious about their response or how to answer the questions they may ask. At the end of the day, what is most important is to assure them that they will be cared for and loved, no matter what.
Before diving in and breaking the news, it is important that you consider at which developmental age and stage your child is – a 5 year old will need a different type of conversation to a 10 or even 15 year old. But remember that every child is different and will have their own unique experience of this conversation.
Development in a Nutshell
Infants & toddlers 1-3 years: Children are incredibly perceptive of their environment and while younger kids may not necessarily understand the words expressed, they are quite aware of emotions expressed and felt. Try communicating both with words and actions. Example: Dad can show him/her his new home etc
Pre-school 4-6 years: At this stage children view the world and all events in it being linked to, caused by, or as a result of him/her. Therefore it is important to emphasise that there is no fault or blame. Open communication, consistency and reliability are important.
Early Primary School 6-8 years: Similar to the 4-6 year old, emphasise that there is no blame. Open communication, consistency and reliability are important.
Later Primary School 9-12 years: Open communication, consistency and reliability are important. Don’t be fooled by appearances. These pre-teens are talented at masking their true feelings. Place an emphasis on communicating that you want to try understanding them and their feelings about the divorce, even if they feel they cannot be understood.
High School 13 years & up: Similar to the 9-12 year old, however they may require/insist on or even push for more information. It is important not to fall into the ‘blame-game’ trap. They will also require a sense of security in terms of how their future may be affected (similar to the toddler age group – ‘how is this going to affect my life’).
The truth is that there is no perfect way to share this difficult news, but generally the following points apply to all ages.
Allow yourselves some time to process the decision to get divorced before telling the kids. Pick a time when you and your ex are emotionally ready to support them for whichever way they may react. Try not to tell them right before a big event in their lives, such as before a big exam.
2. Parental Cooperation
At the end of the day, this isn’t about you – it is about your children’s well-being. Working together from the get-go communicates to your children that you will be able to work together for them in the future. You and your soon-to-be-ex should sit with your children and explain the situation. While this may be experienced as extremely difficult if there is conflict, it is best to present as a united front for the kids. Even if the divorce is not a joint decision, try to communicate as a ‘we’ rather than an ‘I’. Meet with the entire family and follow-up with each child individually afterwards. This will help to preserve your child’s sense of trust in both parents.
If you do not have a cooperative relationship with your spouse and meeting together with the children is impossible, try to at least come to an agreement on what you will discuss with them on your separate occasions. If this does not happen there is a risk of sending the children conflicting messages about your divorce and how it will impact the children.
3.Make a plan
Try taking the time together to determine what you are going to say about the divorce and what explanations you will give. Get your story straight so that you don’t contradict each other or argue while you are breaking the news. Parents can take turns sharing important points that both feel the children need to know. Keep it simple – try not to get caught up in the details of why you are getting divorced.
- “We have been having some problems with each other, and we’ve tried to fix them but things aren’t working out. We haven’t been happy in our marriage, so we have decided that we are getting divorced. But what is most important is that we will ALWAYS be your mom and dad.”
- “We both love you very much, and nothing will ever change that or the fact that we will always be here for you.”
- “This is nobody’s fault. We feel that this is what would be best for our family.” (Do not play the blame game – this may result in your child feeling like they have to choose sides)
- Avoid saying things like “we don’t love each other anymore” because your younger child may assume that you can also fall out of love with them, which may create additional anxiety in your child.
4.Be Honest and Realistic
Be honest with your children about why you are getting divorced, but remember to keep their ages in mind and avoid sharing vivid details behind your separation. Tell them as much as they need to know, and no more.
- For example: The children do not need to know if there has been an affair etc. . .
If you haven’t been able to hide the discord in the marriage – acknowledge it directly.
- “We know that you have heard/seen us arguing a lot lately, and this is why…”
If you think you have hidden the discord, it is very probable that your children have picked it up anyway. Children are incredibly perceptive and are often acutely attuned to their environment, so it may be a good idea to acknowledge this.
- “We aren’t sure if you have noticed, but we have been arguing a lot lately, and this is why…” The children do not necessarily need to know what you have been arguing over, rather emphasise the fact that you haven’t been happy as a couple.
Don’t pretend that life will be the same. Life will be different for everyone in the family in different ways. It is important to prepare your kids for changes to come. It is also important to reassure them that the divorce will not change your love for them and you will both continue to be involved in their lives.
5.What will divorce look like?
Given today’s statistics of divorce, it is most likely that it is not a foreign concept to your children. However what is significant is that divorce may look different for different families, as a result your kids will need to know how divorce looks for their family.
While at this stage you are likely not to have clear answers regarding living arrangements, visitation and so on, it is important to give the children an idea of what is going to happen. Expect them to be most interested in how their own lives will be affected – which is developmentally appropriate (especially school-age kids). They may be anxious about things like where they will live, will they stay at the same school, when will they get to see their pets and will they still be able to go to soccer practice. They are likely to have a lot of detailed questions, so try be prepared for them. It is essential that they experience consistency in their routines and that they know you will keep their lives and needs on track.
Remember to be honest – if you are unsure of the long term plan at this stage, communicate that to them.
- For example “Dad will be moving out of the house, and is going to stay with Uncle Brian for a little while until he can find a place of his own to live in. He is going to look for somewhere where you will have your own room so you have your own bed when you stay at him”.
- If possible, aim to know what the visitation days, times or weekends may be before you have the conversation so that you can share those details. Alternatively, make a temporary plan with your ex for visitation.
“You are going to spend this weekend with Dad at Uncle Brian, and then Dad is going to fetch you from school on Wednesday and bring you back to me for supper time.”
6.What can you do to help them with the news?
- Give your children the time and space to ask any questions they may have. Try to create an open and safe environment for these questions so that your child will not be worried about upsetting you. Let your children know you are open to questions about divorce any time (even if you really want to stop talking about it!).
- Pour on the love – divorce is difficult for children to understand and accept. While your child adjusts, she’ll need a lot of your affection and attention. However you need to try and get the balance right so that you are not smothering them. If your child needs a bit of alone time – that’s ok too!
- Words often fail when hugs and affection can do far better. Be there to comfort your children, acknowledge their feelings whether they are sadness, anger, confusion and so on. Allow them to feel that it is acceptable for them to experience whatever emotion it may be.
- It’s not always that simple: be prepared that your child may need more than you can give them at times, and you may need to involve another family member (grandparent) or another adult that your child is close to, your child’s teacher, or a psychologist for extra support.
- Be consistent. Children thrive when their lives are governed by routine as predictability breeds a sense of safety and security. Try keep routines (and rules) consistent as much as possible between the two households.
- Remember that you don’t always have to have all the answers or solutions to make your children ‘feel better’. As parents, we often go into ‘fix it’ mode. It’s OK not to be able to fix everything all the time, and it’s also OK to communicate that to your kids. You aren’t going to be able to magically take away your own sadness, grief or confusion nor can you do this for your kids. What you can do is to communicate your presence and openness to talk when and if they are ready to.
7.What happens next?
While your children may struggle in the beginning, separate homes for mom and dad is definitely better than one conflictual home. Happier, more contented people are undoubtedly better able to be present parents. In the long run, your children are likely to be better-off after a divorce as opposed to remaining exposed to a volatile or even a quietly unhappy marriage.