Is there an easy way to tell your kids about divorce? No, but there’s an easier way when you are sensitive to your child’s concerns and plan your words with care. Read on to learn what psychologists, divorce attorneys and other professionals have to say about breaking the news of your divorce to your child with authenticity, love and optimism for the future.
Dr. Courtney Conley, Ed.D, LCPC, NCC, ACS
Dr. Courtney Conley, Ed.D, CEO at Expanding Horizons Counseling and Wellness.
Table of Contents
Validating their emotions
Admitting to your kids that you are getting divorced can be a scary and painful process. As parents, we always want to protect our children and not add pain to their world. However, there are a few ways you can make the process easier.
First, you and your spouse need to do some work before you face the kids with any news of the divorce. It helps if you and your spouse have faced your own thoughts and feelings about the end of your relationship before you present the news to your children. Your uncertainty and heightened emotions will only fuel their anxiety. You do not have to have every detail worked out, but the clearer the picture you can paint for them the better. Knowing what to expect in the near future will help lessen their anxiety.
For instance, telling your kids that their father will be moving out soon creates a sense of ambiguity. Their natural reaction will be to ask when and where. Being able to say that your father is moving out this weekend to an apartment at XYZ location doesn’t make the news any more pleasant, but it does provide concrete details, so they aren’t left wondering when their world will shift. As you can see, it is best if parents are able to come together to work out these details and deliver the news together.
Second, recognize that divorce is a huge transition and life shift. You and your spouse have likely known this information for some time and have had time to process it. However, for your children, this may be fresh. Give them the space to experience their emotions and take the time to validate those emotions. Telling your kids that everything will be alright does not help. It sends the message that they have no reason to be upset because everything is fine.
Instead, do not get upset or angry at their reactions and take the time to validate their feelings. Let them know that you can understand why this news would be so upsetting. Ask them what their worst fear is about the divorce, and do your best to address their concern.
However, do not make false promises just to ease your child’s mind and make everyone feel better in the moment. It is human nature to want to assure them that you will still see them every day and nothing will change. While certain things, such as your love for them, will not change, many things will. If you do not have an answer to a question, just let them know that some details are still being worked out. However, this brings us full circle by going back to my first point about being prepared and ready to answer some of the difficult questions that may arise. You can help your children cope with divorce immensely by working out preliminary details to minimize the ambiguity and by validating their emotions.
Divorce is already hard and painful as it is. However, it gets even harder when you know you have to talk and explain all about it with your kids. It’s important to plan ahead what to say and make sure that you say it to them before they hear it from anyone [else]. Whatever you say and how you say it will stick with them for a long time.
Here are 3 ways to tell your kids about divorce:
1. Talk Together. It will be hard, but you have to talk to your kids about the divorce together with your partner. The children need to hear the news from both parents directly. It shows them that you’re still willing to work together not as a couple, but as parents for them.
2. No Blaming. Although you want to impart “the truth” to your children as much as possible, you should avoid putting blame on anyone for how the relationship fell apart. Putting blame on someone will make the children feel caught in the middle and like they have to choose between mom or dad. Use “we” in your explanation as much as you can.
3. [Explain] the Changes. Kids need to know how the divorce will affect their lives, and what they should expect. So when you decide to tell them about the divorce, also tell them what will change and what will remain the same. They will want to know how the set-up will be and what they should expect. Telling them this early on will help them be prepared for these changes.
It will take some time for children to accept what has just been laid out in front of them. Through all of this, it’s important to reassure them to the best of your abilities. Always be present emotionally, and work together with your partner because both of you should still be parents to the kids.
Rosalind Sedacca, CDC
Rosalind Sedacca, CDC is the founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network, a Divorce & Co-Parenting Coach, and author of the acclaimed ebook, “How Do I Tell the Kids About The Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide To Preparing Your Children — With Love!” She also hosts the radio show/podcast: Divorce, Dating & Empowered Living! To learn more about her coaching services, programs, e-courses, and other valuable resources on divorce and co-parenting, visit: Childcentereddivorce.com
Crucial break-the-divorce news messages
When faced with divorce, and having the dreaded “tell the kids” talk with your children, be sure to include these 6 crucial break-the-divorce news messages:
1. Our Divorce Is Not Your Fault. Parents need to understand that most children, regardless of their age, will feel guilty and believe they hold some blame for their parents’ divorce. Parents need to remind kids often, in different ways, that they are not responsible, even when the parents have been fighting about the children. Your kids are always innocent and need to believe this. Don’t let them try to “fix” your parental problems, as we all know they are powerless to do so. And it’s not their responsibility.
2. Your Parents Will Still Be Your Parents. Most children will fear losing one or both parents through the divorce. Both parents must firmly tell the kids that, despite the divorce, we are and always will be your parents. Remind your children, despite changes in home environments, we are still your family. This message is vital to convey, even if one or both parents have new partners entering the family dynamic. Reach out to a divorce coach or therapist to help you clarify this important reminder.
3. Both Parents Will Love You Always. It’s crucial to tell your children often that both of their parents still love them and will always love them, during and long after the divorce. Many children are riddled with fears about losing one or both parents–or that either parent can divorce them if they misbehave or get bad grades. This is a time to be especially compassionate and reassuring about your parent love and support being certain and unconditional.
4. Reframe From Blame. Post-divorce parenting is about adapting to change without judgment and finger-pointing at one another. The more united parents can be for the kids, the easier they will adapt. So, don’t blame their other parent for the breakup. Talk about change being a natural part of life. Despite the changes in the form of our family, we can remain as a family still. This will be especially evident when parents are working together for mutual goals on behalf of the children they love!
5. You’ll Be Safe And Protected. The divorce takes an enormous emotional toll on children. It sabotages their sense of safety and security in the world. Consequently, all children must be reassured that their parents are keeping them safe. Kids need to know life will go on and they can still depend on their parents for physical, mental, and emotional support. Be there when they need you to answer questions and provide suggestions for coping with anxiety and changes ahead.
6. You’re Going To Be Fine. Tell your kids they will be okay, despite the divorce. Affirm that both parents are busy making plans for the entire family in weeks and months ahead. It’s up to you to make decisions that are responsible as well as compassionate, especially for the kids. Remember you’re a role model for your kids. They are watching and learning from you. Be the parent they deserve, and recognize your children’s emotional and psychological needs.
While things will never be the same again, it’s vital to stress what will be the same: their home, friends, school, neighborhood, activities, etc. when that’s the case.
For changes that will never be the same, address them one by one, with the reassurance that you are there for them every step of the way. Children thrive on security and structure. Focus on the structure and routine that is still part of their life. Then explore together what to expect ahead, what choices they have, and some of the positive aspects of what will change.
Allow your children to vent and express anger or fear. Don’t judge them or make them wrong. Listen without lecturing and acknowledge their right to their feelings. Then talk about ways to address some of their needs while accepting that other thing will be different, like the seasons ahead.
This is a process that demands empathy and sincerity. When children know you are there with them, they are more able to adapt to change. Need support? Find an experienced divorce coach or therapist who understands the challenges you will be facing in your personal family dynamics.
Create a plan with your ex-spouse
Your child needs to hear the same information from both parents. Create an agreement on what, when, and how you are going to share the information. You do not need to discuss with your child the details of the divorce, but ensure that the child has all the information on how the divorce is going to affect them. Put anger and blame on hold and share with love, compassion, and calm.
Provide a reason
It is important for children to know that the reason you are getting the divorce is not them. The reason should be age-appropriate, shared with no blame or anger towards the ex. Even if you are communicating a decision on your own, use the “we” pronoun to reassure children that both parents agree with the decision. For example, “we have not been getting along well for a while”, “we have been arguing and want to stop doing that”, “we no longer make each other happy” or “we love each other but are not in love with each other anymore.”
Tell them what stays the same and what changes
It is important for them to know what they can count on and keep, and what they need to give up or change. Do not give them false hopes or make promises that you cannot keep.
Their world is changing, and they are likely to experience anxiety. Make sure they know you are still there for them and that they do not have to choose who to love. Some kids may feel guilt for believing they are the reason for the divorce or an insufficient reason to keep the parents together. It is extremely important that the kids know they are not responsible for this decision. Reassure them that both parents love them deeply.
Give them time to process the information and check in with them later.
After you have shared it with them, ask them if they would like some time to think about it and ask questions later. If you have more than just one child, they may want to talk together before they talk to you. Give them the space to do so.
Vindy Teja is a Professional Life & Divorce Coach, TEDx Speaker, and Author of YOLO: Essential Life Hacks for Happiness and Co-author of Passed Down From Mom: A Collection of Inspiring Stories about Moms & Motherhood. Find her at Vindyteja.com
Tell them together
When it comes to communicating with your children about the decision to divorce, what you don’t say can be just as important as what you do say. Even if you’re confident about both, it still helps to know there may not be any way to do it exactly right. Why should that make a difference?
Investing time, energy, and thoughtfulness into having this often painful discussion with your kids is very important. However, knowing it’s not a perfect exercise – and that you cannot make their pain about the split go away – may help alleviate some of the pressure on you, as well as curb any temptation to avoid having the discussion…or putting it off for too long. What you say, and how you say it, can help your kids deal with their feelings of uncertainty, worry, or anger. Here are some pointers.
Try to tell them as soon as possible. Obviously, it’s better for them to hear it from their own parents than from another source. It’s best if you and your partner tell them together, and to have talking points and a plan for time-sharing in mind. If that’s not possible in the circumstances, then try to have another close and caring relative with you during the conversation.
Depending on the age and stage of your children, it may be appropriate to give them a few simple reasons why the divorce is happening, as well as a timeline for the changes that will take place (e.g., living arrangements, time with each parent, where their stuff will be, etc.). Allow them to express themselves and ask questions, and be prepared if they don’t offer them. It may take some time for them to ask those questions. If you don’t know what to say, don’t be afraid to let them know you will think about it and answer them the next day.
Four things you can do
Change is hard. Change is not always asked for, never predictable, and often, the most uncomfortable place a person can find oneself. As a parent, navigating a changing world, it is often hard to explain to our child(ren) how to tolerate the uncomfortable. This is amplified when we don’t have answers to questions, and when we, as adults, feel nervous and uncertain. Add divorce to the mix, which is one of the dreaded “d’s” and bam! Recipe for potential total disaster. However, there are four things that you can do RIGHT NOW to help set the stage for telling your child(ren) about your divorce, which will not only ease them but ease you as well.
1. First, change your mindset. Easier said than done, right? Right! But really, let’s remember: change isn’t ALWAYS bad. Divorce can mean a lot of changes, from big to small, but it also provides an opportunity for you—and for your child(ren)—to try something new. Moving homes? Great opportunity to paint the walls that neon green you’ve loved on TV but never had the guts to do yourself. Changing schools? Time for a new haircut. It may seem trite, but outlook matters. The more you, as the parent, can model that change can be an unexplored but potentially exciting path, the more that your child(ren) will follow.
2. Second, make a plan. Ideally, even if you and your ex, or soon-to-be ex, can’t stand the sight of each other, communicating about when—and how—you will tell your child(ren) can really make the difference between a conversation that has a message and one that leaves more questions than provides answers. Do it in a place that they—and you—feel comfortable. Plan who will speak first, next, and how each of you will present your own feelings. Don’t be afraid to speak the truth, but do that with respect. Child(ren) are more resilient than we understand, but they respond best to facts.
3. Third, validate feelings. Validate your own feelings, and even if it feels like swallowing broken glass, validate your co-parent’s feelings. It’s ok to tell your kids that you are upset, sad, or mad, but make sure you explain to them that you have goals and solutions for those feelings. Those solutions may not be permanent—hell, they might just last an hour—but showing your kids that it’s ok to feel, and to process those feelings, is key. Then validate your kids’ feelings. Don’t sidestep them. Allow them to express those feelings in a productive form. And don’t be afraid to revisit them, as long as you’re asking them what they would suggest for trying to find a solution to their problem.
4. Fourth, keep talking. Divorce is a process. It can often be a long process. This isn’t a conversation that happens once and never again. Encourage your children to keep talking to you, and your co-parent, when they have questions or just need some reassurance. Remember, kids have different coping skills than we as adults, but they are tiny humans with their own imaginations. Sometimes, those imaginations can run a little wild. Providing space for your kids to express their feelings, but encouraging them to do so in a grounded way, can make all the difference.
Sarah J. Jacobs, Esq.
Sarah J. Jacobs, Esq., co-founder of Jacobs Berger, LLC, owns a boutique family law firm located in Morristown, NJ. The firm’s mission is to de-stress the divorce process. Sarah is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney and is a qualified mediator.
Mary Ann Aronsohn
Mary Ann Aronsohn, MA, LMFT is an experienced, compassionate Marriage and Family Therapist in South Pasadena, CA. Find her at Southpasadenacounseling.com
Make sure that…
DON’T tell your kids that nothing will be the same again! Make sure that they can see that some things will definitely remain the same, and some things will change.
1. Keep some things stable for them. That doesn’t mean they must stay in the same home, but keep some familiar things in their new homes.
2. Make sure they don’t lose all their friends.
3. Make it clear that both parents will stay involved with them and see them a lot. Tell them that the love parents have for kids is an entirely different kind of love than parents have for one another, and it doesn’t end.
4. Let them choose something for their new place–a comforter, art for the wall, etc. so they have some investment and choice in the new place.
5. Keep your homes in the same school district if you can, and the two new homes fairly close to one another.
6. Write a “short story” about what happened to the parents’ relationship that is blame-free and judgment-free, so the children are free to love both parents. Make sure friends and family know that story too so they also don’t have to choose sides. Everyone gets to keep loving everybody that way.
7. Get help to co-parent together if you need it so that you can continue to cooperate for the children’s sake.
Always do the following
Divorce is not an easy decision to make, especially when children are involved. No matter what age your kids are, always do the following when you tell them the news of your divorce:
Tell All Your Kids At The Same Time. Don’t tell the little kids separately from the older kids or tell kids separately if they live in different locations. Make an effort to have all of your kids together because they can support each other at the moment when they receive this tough news.
Prepare What You’re Going To Say And When You’re Going To Say It. You and your spouse need to plan what you’re going to say to your kids and agree on when you will share it with them. You don’t want to share this news with them in the form of an emotional outburst, and you don’t want to do it in a rushed manner. Consider telling them about your divorce with a non-blaming narrative, and on a weekend when they will have more time to process it. Also, avoid special days and holidays. Be sure to include the initial visitation plan that you and your partner have agreed to so the children will know that they are still going to get to see both parents on a regular basis.
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