Have you been worried about how to tell your kids you are getting divorced for a long time now? Did you stay in the marriage much longer than you wanted, because you were so frightened of what the news or changes might do to them? Have you put off telling them anything because you just don’t know what to say?
You are not alone. Every mother will tell you the thought of inflicting pain on your child is unbelievably excruciating, and it can even be paralyzing.
However, you’ve also realized that staying in an unhealthy environment isn’t sustainable for you and it’s certainly not good for the kids either. Having two happy or happy-ish parents has to be better than two unhappy ones who live together, right? (Yes, we agree with you!)
Telling your children about your decision to divorce is not going to be easy…but with a few guidelines in place, it can be a lot less painful and may actually open the door to a healthier and improved, ongoing dialogue with your kids.
How to tell your kids you are getting divorced: What to avoid
- Don’t underestimate them. Children understand and see FAR more than we give them credit for. This includes reading your body language. Kids are masters at that.
- Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Kids need to know that it’s normal, natural, and totally okay to be upset when something sad happens.
- Avoid language like “don’t feel sad” or “don’t be scared.” These feelings are normal and associated with loss. If you discourage them, kids will keep it inside or begin to believe it’s wrong to feel that way.
- Don’t give unnecessary or adult details. The kids do not need to know that Daddy is sleeping around or that your legal bills are piling up. Stick to telling them about the things that apply directly to them. Avoid blaming, name calling or labeling your mate. He is their father first and always will be.
What do you want to make sure you do?
- Tell them together. Ideally, both parents will tell the kids as a couple – that means, at the same time. Keep the conversation simple and direct. Invite them to ask questions. Afterwards, talk with each child individually as well. Older kids may have different questions or need more details than younger ones, so talking individually gives you a chance to address their worries.
- Use age appropriate language and details. When talking to all the kids together, make sure it’s in a way that your youngest will understand. You can have a deeper conversation with the older children separately.
- Model for your kids how to express their feelings. Tell them honestly how you feel so they can feel safe doing the same. Kids will mimic you and if you act strong and show no emotion, that’s what they will try to do too. It’s ok to cry and let them know that you are sad. Tell them what is in your heart, in simple terms and they will feel safe enough to do the same.
- Tell the truth. Sugar coating it isn’t going to ring true anyway so it’s best to be straightforward and honest. Try, “This is really sad and it’s going to be hard at times. But we have each other to get through it.”
- Check in often. Feelings and understandings change as your child grows and matures. They may not feel free to talk about it in this moment, but that can change weeks, months or years later. By asking how they are, you are inviting them to share their feelings.
- Be prepared to have the discussion more than once, possibly over and over again. Let them talk and ask questions when they are ready. Reassure them they can come to you anytime.
- Look for outside resources to lessen your children’s sense of isolation. Find age appropriate books that discuss divorce, two households, or step families. Contact your children’s school, the administration and your child’s teacher to let them know what’s going on at home. Some schools even have after school support programs for kids whose parents are breaking up or already separated.
After the initial talk, it’s important to keep the conversation going and allow them to bring up questions anytime. As changes occur, like moving out or a new custody schedule is put into place, keep the kids in the loop and informed. Discuss what it means for them (both good and bad) and find out what questions they have in order to give them an opportunity to prepare themselves mentally for the changes to come. Help them to know what to anticipate next (for example, perhaps having a family calendar posted in both homes, so kids can see where they will be tomorrow or next week and take comfort in the structure) and always, always, encourage them to express themselves.
The decision to divorce is never easy, most especially when there are kids involved. Often the anticipation of the conversation, when or how to tell the kids, is much worse than the conversation itself. You may find that they kids are relieved to talk to you about it or even that they suspected all along.
One final note
This advice applies to telling kids of ALL ages, no matter how old they are. Even if they are grown up, with kids of their own, they will want and will appreciate a chance to be part of this important family conversation. Telling your kids about your decision to divorce is an opportunity to bring your family closer together, if you let it.
If you’d like to speak to someone more in depth about your particular situation, we invite you to schedule a free 45-minute consultation with us.