Children pick up far more than we realize. If you and your spouse are ready to file for divorce, your children probably already know that something challenging is coming. They have probably already been wondering and worrying about whether you are getting divorced long before you make any sort of official announcement. The hard thing for parents is knowing when and how to tell your children that you are actually going to get a divorce, and most parents also worry about how to tell the kids with the least amount of trauma possible.
There is, unfortunately, no single answer to this question for all cases. What is true in virtually every case, however, is that it is much better to have a thoughtful plan for telling them before you do so. Ideally, the parents should work together to agree on a way to tell the children together in order to avoid mixed messages from the parents. Obviously, there are a lot of situations in which the parents are so caught up in their own feelings about what led to the divorce that they struggle to work together on this critical issue. There are also situations in which legitimate safety concerns prevent the parents from being able to tell the children this news together. If the parents cannot have this conversation together, one of the parents is going to have to break the news to the children. If that ends up being you, you’ve got this! And please know that you are not alone!
If your children are already in therapy with someone they trust, involving that person in the discussion about how and when to tell the children can be very helpful. That does not necessarily mean that the therapist has to be present for the discussion – sometimes it’s as simple as getting advice from the therapist about what to say and when to say it. If the children are not already seeing a therapist, getting advice from experts can still happen, most easily in the form of books and online resources published by those experts.
When to Talk
One important question is when to tell the kids. Waiting too long to tell the kids can make them feel ambushed and leave them with too little time to process things before the divorce is final. Telling them too soon can leave them in limbo, though, because the divorce process itself can be lengthy. There’s also a risk that telling the kids too soon may force you to backtrack if you and your spouse then attempt to reconcile, which can leave the kids with lots of confusing questions.
As far as timing is concerned, try to tell the kids when the decision to move forward with a divorce has been made and is unlikely to be unmade but with enough time that the kids can adjust to everything before the process is complete. It’s also important to remember that your children have their own schedules and lives, so thinking about what else is going on in their life should be something you consider too. Having that discussion the night before your child has a big test at school or a tryout for a sports team is probably not ideal because it may distract them from that test or tryout, leaving them even more upset. Similarly, telling them right before their best friend’s birthday party or some other event they’ve really been looking forward to may ruin something that would otherwise have been a joyful experience by clouding it with something that might be very sad for them.
How to Talk
Letting your kids know that their parents are divorcing is often not easy, and the divorce itself is going to result in major changes for your children. Telling the kids about the divorce should be done when you can sit down without distractions and when you have enough time for them to process what you are telling them, ask questions, and share their feelings. This really goes back to having a plan and not letting this be an impulsive moment. Consider the location for the talk carefully too, so you can pick a place where they will feel comfortable asking questions and talking about these issues. It’s also a good idea to plan on having more than one conversation. Your kids may not know what to say the first time you tell them this news, so letting them know that you’ll talk again soon (and maybe even scheduling that next talk) lets them know that they will be able to ask more questions and share their feelings after they’ve had some time to process.
What to Say
The hardest thing is knowing what to tell them. Again, every situation will be different, but there are some clear general guidelines. Parents should generally avoid talking too much about why the divorce is happening. Keep the focus on the children, not on the relationship between you and your spouse. The kids need to know how this will affect them, and they need space to share their thoughts and feelings with you.
Also, the parents should reinforce that the children will not be losing either of their parents. There is no denying that the children’s day-to-day lives will be significantly affected by the divorce, and that will be scary for them. Helping them to identify any positive influences in their lives that will not change may help. For example, if the children will keep the same school, extracurricular activities, friends, etc. that may help provide them with some comfort. It is also important to avoid blaming or insulting the other parent and to remember that your children have their own relationships with your spouse – their feelings about your spouse will not be the same as yours.
Again, do everything you can to keep this conversation about the children, not about you and your spouse. The focus should be on how this will affect them, what questions and feelings they have, and the fact that both of their parents still love them and value them.
There is a lot of information out there, and there are many people who have written about this topic. Here are some of my favorite resources to give to my own clients: