The One Thing You Should Never Say to Your Kids During Divorce
When going through a divorce, so many of us feel alone. No one understands us completely, and that includes ourselves. We struggle to find the words to describe and understand our experience. One particularly challenging discussion, leaving us grasping for the right words for sure, is the one we must have with our children. We love our children and know that the divorce will definitely impact their lives. We worry about and wonder what is the best way to talk about divorce with them. What are things we should say, and what are things we should definitely not say?
If you identify with this, then take heart that you are not alone! It’s textbook normal to have these concerns. This is why we turned to our SAS for Women community. We knew they’d have insights for you on what to say and what not to say to your children during divorce. Below, we have laid out their diverse thoughts. We thank these moms for taking the time to share their insights, and in so doing, care for you:
1. Never Let Your Kids Feel the Divorce is Their Fault
Jenn from Santa Barbara, CA, emphasizes the importance of not letting your children feel they are to blame for the divorce.
“I would say that one thing to never say to your kids is that the divorce is their fault or that they played any part in their parent’s decision to separate. Kids will inherently feel they are responsible for their parent’s divorce. It’s difficult enough for kids to experience the separation of their parents and the breakup of their family. Any additional conversation about them playing a role in the decision will only make it harder.”
When you first talk with your children about the divorce, try to keep their perspective in mind. Do not assume that they already know they are not to blame. Try to be as straightforward as possible when making this point.
2. Instead, Make Them Understand that the Divorce Decision was Made Between Adults
Closely related to the previous advice, Jenn also believes that it is vital for children of a divorce to understand that this was an adult decision. As she suggests,
“Emphasize that the decision to divorce had nothing to do with them. I think it’s wise to tell the kids that the decision to divorce is one that married adults make, but it changes nothing about how each parent feels about their kids. In my experience, this is something to say when you first tell your kids about the divorce and then reiterate along the way so that they hear it multiple times from their parents that the divorce is not their fault.”
Young children often have difficulty understanding that there is not always a correlation between their actions and outside events. Therefore, they might unintentionally blame themselves for the divorce and attempt to think of ways that they might be able to “fix” the “divorce problem.”. Even if you have tried to convey this to them, it can be difficult for children to rid themselves of unnecessary guilt entirely. Consistent reassurance that this was an adult decision and they played no role in it will eventually help them step away from self-blame.
3. And Don’t Tell Them It’s Daddy’s Fault, Either
Along the lines of not placing blame, Shushi from Great Britain believes that it is best for you not to place complete and undeniable blame on your children’s father* for the divorce.
“Hell, it may feel like it’s all his fault – everything from the leaky washing machine to the tears that won’t stay inside any longer – but don’t blame him in front of your kids. Your kids will feel they have to take sides, which tears them apart. Or just as bad, they feel they have to act the part of being on your side, even when they’re confused. Acting contrary to their heart’s truth is just as hurtful. Children need the freedom to follow their own feelings and find how to be themselves amid the maelstrom of emotions and the undertow of what we parents want.”
Not placing blame, while possibly difficult, will help your children (and you) heal in the long run. This will allow your child to process their emotions as needed and allow them to continue to foster a relationship with both of their parents. You and your Ex might no longer be married, but he is still your children’s father. Refraining from bad-mouthing or placing blame will allow for easier coparenting and a positive parent-child relationship for everyone involved.
Go deeper and learn why badmouthing your other parent is a bad idea by reading this SAS article.
4. Limit Your Kids’ Exposure to Your Falling Apart
Many moms have expressed concerns and worry about how to present themselves to their children when divorce is happening. It’s natural that as a mom, you want to protect your children from anything that may hurt. This includes all ugly and upsetting emotions. Your maternal instinct might be to put on a brave face for your kids. As a woman, though, facing some of her hardest days, you could also be breaking down or unable to get out of bed.
Diane, from Salem, Oregon, says more about this and how she struggled to hide her darker emotions from her son. She wants other moms to know …
“What has helped me with all of my feelings is self-care like finding divorce resources and being a part of a support group. I try to make sure I take the weekends as ‘no divorce days.’ No divorce emails, texts, discussions, blogging….We must give ourselves the space to regain clarity and listen to what’s going on in our heads, our hearts, and our bodies so that we can attend to those needs outside of the big D. In some cases, like mine, this is the fight of your life, and you need to be strong and healthy to overcome it.”
Another mother, Kiya, shares,
“I would suggest sheltering your kids from all of the angry emotions. But grieving and hurting shouldn’t be hidden entirely, because they can play a part in showing your children how to deal with changes and loss. What’s best I think is open, honest communication but based on your child’s emotional development.”
What both of these women are suggesting is that you can only expect to show up for your children in difficult times if you also show up for yourself. Having your safe community and clear boundaries are essential so that you have the space YOU need to process your emotions and can also engage with your children honestly and age-appropriately.
5. Strive to Keep Communication Open, Healthy, and Age Appropriate
Marilee of Kansas City thinks it’s essential to share positive feelings and thoughts while going through a divorce:
“…not everything has to be doom and gloom, Good Guy and Bad Guy. Show your children that life is complicated and that you can always aim to take the higher road. My mother always talked badly about my father after they divorced. And she discouraged us from having a relationship with him. In time, I chose not to visit him so much because I was an angry teen. But my mother never encouraged me to do otherwise. It was her way of “winning.” Years later, I miss those years I could have had with my dad. I see now my mother could have done more to nurture that relationship. Instead, she leaned on me like I was her best friend. And now I admit it, I resent her for that.”
Your children are still children, Marilee is saying. We have to be careful, for, in our isolation dealing with divorce, it can be easy to “dump on him” to our kids. Be careful of parentification, as Marilee suggests. It’s a painful place to put your kids and they probably will not forget that you’ve done it.
Check out …
6. Finally, Let Your Children Know That Despite the Divorce, They Were Born Out of Love
There may have been a lot of yelling and chaos in your house. There may have been silence, with each parent having shut down. There may have also been no obvious signals of a marriage dying out. But with divorce a reality now, this confusing time will likely make your children question love, life, and their own reason for being. How could they have been born out of such a relationship as was your marriage?
Helen from New York City cautions all divorcing moms:
“Let your kids know that they were born from love and all the hope you and their father could ever have had for a healthy future. And while the marriage did not work out that way, you must assure your kids, you have no regrets about being their mother.”
This reminder to your children is so important. Through their processing of emotions and feelings, they need to know now more than ever that they are loved and came from a place of love.
No one knows precisely the right and wrong things to say to your children through divorce. So be kind to yourself, you might make mistakes and likely say something you shouldn’t. However, with a community of support and continuing to find the means to care for yourself as a mother and a woman, your unconditional love for your children will help you and them grow through this unexpected turn.
Elizabeth Newland is a third-year law student in Chicago who is committed to children and family rights. She aims to work in a family-related non-profit firm after graduation.
Whether you are thinking about divorce, dealing with it, or recreating the life you deserve, one thing we see making a significant difference for women is the conscious choice to not do it alone. Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS to partner them through the emotional, financial, and oftentimes complicated experience of breaking up and reinventing.
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*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”