When one or both partners in a marriage decide to divorce, one of the first questions they ask is, “How do we tell the kids?” While every family is different, there are some basic guidelines that can reduce children’s felt trauma, and set parents on a path toward cooperating for their children’s good:
Plan ahead. Parents should meet together before telling the kids, and set an agenda. Who will talk? Where will you meet? When?
Think about the memory this will create. Heather Westberg, Ph.D. published results of in-depth interviews of children of divorce. Her study showed that the memory of finding out sticks with children, potentially bringing back the pain when recalled. With that in mind, the conversation is best had in a place where the children feel safe and comfortable, and in which they have the freedom to react openly and honestly.
Timing is important. Telling children when all the boxes are being packed or the for sale sign goes up in the yard can be traumatic. Telling them months before anyone makes a move and allowing them to see the family still living together can be equally confusing. An additional timing issue is that of providing consistency and routine. Children and adolescents cope better with major life changes when their routines stay consistent. Many parents wait until summer or winter break to tell news of divorce, thinking this will give the children time to recover. Know that recovery is life-long, and familiar routines, people, and places can serve as anchors when it seems everything is changing.
Rally support. For children elementary age and younger, it’s important to tell their teachers the day before children learn of the divorce so they are prepared for potential upset or acting up. Ask teachers to be sensitive, and discreet with the information – you are asking them to be understanding, but NOT to ask the children anything about it, or mention it unless the child mentions it.
Expect the unexpected: Children react in a variety of different ways to news of divorce. Some have difficulty taking in this information, and don’t react. They may need hours, days, or weeks to come to grips with this new reality. Others, even those who are usually very emotionally stable, may react with big emotions, showing anger or sadness – crying or yelling. Make space for any and all reactions in your head and heart, and allow your children to express themselves in whatever way and time comes naturally.
Present a united front. Unless there is open hostility between parents, it is best that they tell children about the divorce together. This can prevent the parents from blaming each other in front of the children, and also guard against the children feeling abandoned.
Get your story straight. Divorce is confusing for children and adolescents. How much you should share about why you are divorcing depends on the situation, and on children’s ages and developmental stages. As a rule, though, adult information is for adults, not kids or teens. Even if they don’t ask at first, children almost always ask “why” at some point, and it’s best if parents commit together to answers they can give consistently, even as years go by.
Avoid blaming. Openly sharing the “blame” for the divorce helps protect children’s relationships with both parents. Regardless of what the parents have done to hurt their marital relationship, relationships with their children need not suffer. To share “blame,” you can say something like, “We have tried very hard to fix the problems between us, but have decided it is best we live in separate houses. We both love you very much, and will always be your parents.”
Apart from the meat of this difficult conversation – the fact that you are divorcing, there are some vital elements to convey to children- and then convey again and again:
- You are not to blame. Research shows that children’s first emotional reactions to news of parents divorcing are ones of guilt. They very often believe they have done something to cause the break up.
- This is final. Children of all ages hold on to fantasies that their parents will reunite – before, during, and long after the divorce process. When children believe their parents might get back together, they are subject to repeated losses when they find out their fantasies aren’t true.
- You are not alone. Many thousands of families go through divorce each year. The children probably have friends living in single and remarried parent homes. Point these out.
- We will always be your parents. Kids need to know that they are not losing a parent. Assure children that you will always be their mom and dad, and will always be present in their lives.
Let your children be the guides for any more information you impart; they will ask for what they are ready to hear. Young children will want to know how they will be cared for, and older children and teens tend to ask questions about how the divorce will affect their lives. Some common questions you should be prepared to answer honestly include:
- Will I have to move?
- How often will I see you?
- Will I change schools?
- Where will I spend Christmas?
Be honest with your answers to questions. If you don’t yet have the answers, be honest about that, and let children know you will tell them as soon as you know.
Hopefully, this is the first of many conversations you will have with your children about divorce. Make space and time to talk again – and again. Commit to having more frequent conversations with your kids about everyday things to keep the lines of communication open. Ask open ended questions, like, “what is something exciting that happened this week?” When your children talk to you, whether about divorce or other things, listen intently. Give them your undivided attention, don’t interrupt, and do respect their feelings and thoughts. If you have more than one child, make time to talk with each one on one as often as you can, in case they don’t feel comfortable asking questions in their sibling’s presence. Remember that children continue to process divorce over months and years, and you may be having these talks well into your children’s adult lives. Starting out with healthy communication will pave the way for healthy relationships with your children for years to come.