Getting divorced is hard. For many parents, one of the hardest parts of the process is telling their kids. Unfortunately, there's no magic formula for how to talk to your kids about divorce. Kids vary not only in age but in temperament, so in addition to an initial gathering where the news is broken to everyone at once, you should expect to have follow-up conversations with your kids as needed in the days and weeks to come.
Here are some tips to make this difficult task a little easier—on both you and your kids.
If you and your spouse can manage it, sit down with your children and tell them the news together. This will require a little planning on your part. You don't want to sound scripted, but you want to be in agreement on the information you present. The important takeaway for the kids from this initial conversation, besides the obvious, is that no matter what, their parents will always work together to do what's best for them. Having this important conversation together, calmly, is a good way to demonstrate that from the outset.
It's okay if you get a little emotional; it's a sad time for all of you, and you don't have to hide that. Just state the obvious, and give some encouragement: "This is a really sad time for our family, and sometimes we will all get sad. But we will get through it. We will be okay."
It may not be possible to tell your kids about your divorce together with your spouse, like if your spouse has left, or you are too angry with each other to be in the same room. That's less than ideal, but you can still make it work. The key, now and going forward, is to avoid bad-mouthing your spouse, no matter how much you think they deserve it. Trust us: talking negatively about your spouse to your children never ends well, especially for them.
As therapists say, there is a lot to unpack from this conversation, and kids will need time and space and permission to do it. If possible, choose to tell them at the beginning of a weekend, so that they will have time to process the information and access to you to ask questions. Avoid telling your kids about your divorce in a public place; they deserve privacy and quiet to react to this news however they need to. Similarly, don't share this momentous news fifteen minutes before you have to leave for soccer or dance practice with your child. It's unfair to expect them to be able to set this information aside and put on a public face as if nothing has happened.
Speaking of what to expect from your kids, much of that will depend upon their ages. A two year old and a fifteen year old will (hopefully) react much differently. In general, though: keep the message simple, factual, and neutral, without assigning blame. Let them know that this is a decision you made together after trying very hard to make the marriage work.
Assure them that the divorce is not their fault. This may seem like a no-brainer to you, but parents who are stressed over marital troubles they are trying to keep from their children may snap at their kids more than usual. A young child might recall such incidents and believe that her parents are getting divorced because she was "bad." This could lead to crippling guilt, and futile efforts to be "extra good" to save the parents' marriage.
Likewise, reassure your children that just because your marriage is ending, your family is not. You will both always be their parents. You will both always love them. This is a message that will need to be repeated in future conversations.
Your kids will be feeling a lot of different things over the days, weeks, and months to come: anger, anxiety, grief, fear, and maybe even relief when one parent moves out if the atmosphere in the home had been tense due to conflict. Tell your kids, in advance, that it's okay to feel however they feel. You may have to work on helping them express those feelings in an acceptable way, but the feelings themselves are never unacceptable. Your kids may have tantrums or act out, or they may keep everything inside. It's okay to check in with them about their feelings, but don't interrogate them; that's unlikely to make them feel safe enough to open up to you.
If possible, let your children's teachers know as soon as possible that you are getting divorced, so they can know what's going on with your kids, and offer appropriate support.
You don't want to overwhelm your kids with information, especially at the outset. Trying to process the news that your parents are divorcing is overwhelming enough; more than one person has described it as trying to drink from a fire hose. There's simply too much to take in. That said, not knowing what the future will look like can also cause great anxiety, so you want to help your children have some idea of what to expect.
Give them the basics: mom and dad are going to be living apart. You will still get to spend a lot of time with both of us. We will both keep taking care of you. The details are less important; you may not know a parenting time schedule right now, and that's fine. The overall message needs to be that although your family will look different, both of their parents will be there for them in all the ways that matter. Be wary of promising specifics that you may not be able to deliver on.
Besides giving them more information than they can handle at one time, there's another reason to keep things simple: you can't listen while you're talking. And you will want to listen to your kids, both during this initial conversation and all the ones that follow. Kids, especially young ones, may have questions you wouldn't have imagined. You can't know your kids' concerns until you hear them. And you can't hear them until you listen.
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