The Proper Way to Tell Your Children You Are Getting Divorced
Early on in my career as a divorce mediator, I was dealing with a couple who decided to consult with their child’s therapist about the best way to inform the child about their impending divorce. The therapist asked them to come in to the office a few minutes before the child’s next session to discuss the best approach. By the next session the parents went in to speak with the therapist alone while the child waited outside in the waiting room. Unfortunately, while the topic was being discussed, the parents got into a loud, heated argument and that’s how the child learned that the parents were getting divorced.
Too often, kids find out that their parents are breaking up in ways that are less than ideal because many parents find it too hard to talk about and therefore avoid having the discussion. Postponing the conversation can make matters worse and harder to address properly after the children learned of the divorce in a less than ideal way. Others think they don’t need to because they think that their children recognize what is going on in the home and don’t believe that they are oblivious to the breakdown of the relationship. Not properly addressing the issue gives children the message that divorce is an unspoken dark topic that they should be ashamed of.
Children need to be informed of parent’s separation so they can be psychologically prepared. Not having an open conversation will leave children confused and uncertain about the future, and can lead to anxiety and depression, among other issues. Preparing carefully for the conversation reduces potential pitfalls such as conflict of loyalty towards parents, reconciliation fantasies, and parent alienation syndrome.
The way you break the news will set the tone for this new phase of their lives. Take this opportunity to show them how you embrace life’s circumstances head on as they come and turn them into growth-oriented challenges and experiences. Understand that this is a discussion that children will remember forever, and the decisions you make at this point will determine if those memories are positive.
Much of the difficulty of this conversation stems from the parents’ own uncertainty about the future. It’s hard to be reassuring and supportive when you feel weak yourself and don’t know what the future will be. Gaining your own clarity prior to addressing the children would change the quality of the conversation. This is a good time for you and your spouse to put your differences aside and discuss the need to work out the separation of the marital unit together in a fair and amicable way. If you can, make a commitment to resolve the divorce as smoothly as possible to minimize the negative effects to the children. It is in the best interest of your children to have parents who can be respectful to each other and maintain a cordial relationship for effective co-parenting. Prepare for the conversation together, and don’t hesitate to involve a professional therapist or mediator if you need help communicating with each other.
Planning the talk together is difficult. You obviously have a lot of differences and often don’t like each other. One or both of you may be angry and resentful about the divorce. Still, it’s important to realize that you will need an open and effective line of communication with your ex-spouse if you plan to share custody and decision-making powers. If you want to set yourself up for a healthy co-parenting arrangement, the best time to start is at the beginning of the transition.
It is best for both parents to tell the children together. Showing a united front gives the children permission to continue loving both parents. It also demonstrates the parents’ willingness to continue to parent together after the divorce, which can set the framework for healthy co-parenting in the future.
Ideally, all the children should be told at the same time, in the form of a family meeting, to avoid a situation where some children hear the news from siblings before the parents have had the chance to speak to them about it. Pick a relaxed time, not when they are running off to catch the school bus, or when friends are over, or when they are tired or hungry. Try to remain calm when delivering the news.
Make sure not to spread the word to your family and friends prior to telling the children to prevent them from first learning about your divorce from others.
Consider what children need from parents, such as unconditional love, safety, and support, and address this in the conversation with them. Reassure your children that their needs remain your priority, and both of you will continue to love and provide for them in the ways that they are accustomed to. You can reduce some of their anxiety about the future by giving them as much relevant information as is available, such as moving plans, timelines, and schedules.
When children see their parent’s relationship fall apart, they are concerned about their own connection with their parent. Articulate to your children that the bond between a parent and child remains forever, regardless of the marital status of the parents. Keep in mind that if you try to break the children’s relationship with the other parent by disparaging and disrespecting them, or withholding access, you may be sending your children the message that the parent-child relationship is tenuous, which can further break down their already fragile sense of security.
It's never ever the children’s fault and make sure they know that
It is common for children to blame themselves for their parents’ divorce.
Let them know that it is not their fault, and nothing they did or could have done would change the reality. If these messages are not related to the children, you are burdening them with thoughts of what they might have done differently in a situation that is beyond their control.
It is inappropriate to discuss with your children why your marriage didn’t work out, or to assert blame for the divorce. Talking to them about the specifics of the relationship is wrong and can make them feel as if they have something to do with the breakdown. Children are not a party to your marriage and should be kept away from the drama. Remember that your place is as the parent and theirs is as the child. Avoid parentification; don’t lean on your child for support and don’t violate a generational boundary by encumbering them with adult issues.
Remember to listen to your child. Don’t just inform them and move on. Rather, wait patiently and listen to what they have to say, and about how they feel. Encourage them to express their feelings to you or to a counselor they are comfortable speaking with. It is important to remember that no two children are the same; each child will receive and react to the information differently, and should be responded to accordingly.
When one parent is initiating the divorce and the other parent is resentful about the marriage ending, it is important to realize that some time is needed for both parents to adequately process the decision and reach a place where they are comfortable speaking to the children without revealing their negative emotions.
If one spouse is not willing or able to participate in a collaborative conversation, it may not be possible for both parents to speak to their children together. However, these principles are still true. Consult with a professional to get advice on the best way to inform your children, taking into account the modifications needed for your situation.
Many parents find that a frustrating part of divorce is the inability to control their former spouse and they worry that proper coparenting is an insurmountable task. Remember that you don’t need the other parent’s cooperation to be an effective parent. You can control what you do, starting from being present in your children’s lives during this time of uncertainty. Don’t engage in bickering with your co-parent, and avoid involving your children in any of your disagreements.
The good news!
Children are very resilient. Research shows that children from divorced homes can adapt well to their new norms and continue to thrive, provided there is a loving parent-child relationship and parents who are not in conflict. The determining factor in children’s ultimate success is not necessarily a divorced or intact home, but the level of conflict between the parents.
When you act as a responsible adult and control your feelings, you are giving your child the gift of a role model that they can look up to and help them all through life’s challenges.