It will be challenging, it is likely to be emotional, and chances are you are dreading it. How to tell your children that you are getting divorced and the approach you to take in discussing this major and often heart-wrenching family shift matters and it will have real impact.
The following are tips to consider as you broach the topic of divorce with your children. The ages, developmental, and maturity levels of your children are certainly significant factors. Their response and level of understanding will likely vary significantly based on these variables, and your approach should bear this in mind.
When possible, tell your children together. This is not always an option, but when it is, it is an advisable approach. It is helpful for your children to receive a uniform message from both of their parents to minimize confusion and splitting. Presenting a united front about a decision and transition that is so life-altering can help to bolster the feelings of safety and security that children crave so deeply. You may be in complete disagreement about everything pertaining to the separation or divorce, but whenever possible it is very important to come together and agree upon what and how to tell the children.
Avoid blame. Avoid a message to your children that blames each other and instead take joint ownership for the end of the marriage. Despite any feelings of anger, hurt, or blame you may feel toward your spouse, be very mindful that this is your child's other parent. Criticizing, blaming, or insulting your spouse to your child is like criticizing and blaming a part of them. It is not generally productive or healthy to put your child in a place where they feel they must choose a side.
Reinforce to your children that they are not at fault. This may feel obvious to you and your spouse but your children need repeated reassurance. They need to hear from you that nothing they have done has caused this decision and that they will continue to be loved and cared for as much as ever.
Spare the details. Keep communication and messaging simple and age-appropriate. Avoid sharing details about your spouse's poor behavior, financial issues, infidelity, etc. Keep the adult details separate from the children as much as possible. It is not appropriate or helpful to emotionally burden and confuse your kids with these details. Older children will likely push for more information, and it is important to make a thoughtful, age-appropriate determination about how much to share. Your goal should be to resist involving them in the turmoil and prioritize their best interests.
Listen to your child and answer their questions. Give your child a place to discuss their feelings. If the separation is new, or even if it isn't, they may feel anxious about what to tell people or how to handle the family dynamics. They will be concerned about how their life will be impacted, where they will live, where they will go to school, how often they will see each parent. Give your children space and time to tell you how they feel. Make sure they know they are safe. Help them to feel validated, supported, and reassured, and answer their questions as clearly as you can. Look to provide consistency wherever you can as well as compassion and extra affection. Listen to your children and ensure they have adequate, appropriate support with other family members, at school, and/or with a counselor.
Be aware of warning signs that your child is not coping well. Be mindful of how such a significant family change may be affecting your child. In addition to listening to your children and providing a safe space to share their feelings, you should be aware of warning signs that they are not coping well. If you notice the following warning signs, please alert the school counselor and seek professional support for your child:
- significant mood changes, uncharacteristic sadness, anger, or withdrawal
- significant drop in grades
- increased isolation, or suddenly spending time with a more troubled group of kids
- radical changes in behavior (e.g. lying, cheating, stealing, fighting, intense anger)
- physical symptoms, such as sleep or eating disorders or frequent unexplained illnesses
- substance abuse
Emphasize positive goals. As you seek to minimize daily disruptions and validate painful emotions, it is also important that your children understand you see a light at the end of the tunnel. Reassure your children that despite this being a challenging time, despite their fear, overwhelmingness, and all of the changes, your goals and hopes are for the whole family to come to a place that is happier and healthier for everyone. Reassure your children that a happy family can look many different ways, and that the happiness ahead for this family is perhaps one they have not yet envisioned, but that doesn't mean it is not on the horizon.
Take care of yourself. In order to best attend to your children's needs and emotions, and to communicate in a way that is compassionate and effective, you need to be okay. Seek support and access the outlets available to you. Review our tips to help you thrive post-divorce. You and your children will get through this!
“Divorce isn't such a tragedy. A tragedy is staying in an unhappy marriage, teaching your children the wrong things about love. Nobody ever died of divorce.”
- Jennifer Weiner, Author
*These tips were compiled from a number of sources, including Psychology Today, healthychildren.org, and Divorce Magazine.