No part of divorce or separation is easy, but perhaps one of the most difficult steps is breaking the news of your breakup to your children. You know you must do it, but how? Understand that it won’t be easy, for you or for them, but there are things you can do to avoid making it harder than it has to be. Keep reading for the essentials of how to tell your kids you’re divorcing or that you and their other parent are breaking up.
Who Should Tell the Kids About Your Divorce?
This is one divorce-related question that has a clear answer: if at all possible, both you and the other parent should sit down with the kids and tell them together. In some ways, how you break this news is as important as what you say about it. Having this conversation ensures that everyone is saying (and hearing) the same message at the same time. Even more importantly, the fact that you and your spouse can work together on this hard task conveys the impression that you will be able to work together as co-parents. Seeing you cooperate as parents, even when you’re separating as spouses, will be reassuring to your children.
When Should You Tell Your Kids About Your Divorce?
You might think that your kids need to know as soon as possible, but that may not be true. If one of you is planning to move out, you should tell your children close to the time that the move will begin (before they see one of you packing or boxes stacked in the hallway when they come home from school). Telling them weeks or months in advance will not help them adjust to the news. It will only make them worried and anxious about when the actual event will happen, or allow them to fantasize that “maybe it’s not really going to happen,” only to be devastated when one parent actually moves out.
A possible exception to this rule: if other people know about your pending divorce or separation and you have any concern that your kids might get wind of it from someone else. It is always better that they hear the news from you and their other parent than to hear, or overhear, it from a third party.
As far as the specifics of when to tell your kids, choose a time like a weekend morning or afternoon when you do not have anything planned and nowhere to rush to, such as a sports practice or meeting. It’s best to have this conversation at home, where kids can react however they need to for as long as they need to, without the prying or pitying eyes of strangers.
What to Tell Your Kids About Your Divorce
For many parents, there is a temptation to tell their kids more than they need to know. Remember, what you know about your divorce is much different from what your children need to know. In a nutshell, they need to know three things: that you are divorcing; how your divorce will affect their lives; and that you and their other parent will still be there for them.
Remember that from a developmental standpoint, kids are fairly egocentric. The reasons for your divorce, or even how YOU are feeling about it, will not matter as much to your kids as much as things concerning their lives, like whether they’ll have to change schools, or whether scheduled parenting time will keep them from going to their best friend’s slumber party.
Keep your explanation short and sweet, along the lines of, “You might have noticed that things haven’t felt right around here lately. We have been talking about how to make things better, and we have decided that the best option is for us to get a divorce. We are sad that this is what we need to do, and we know it will be hard for all of us. We will do everything we can not to make it harder for you than it has to be.” Then—and this is crucial—ask your kids if they have any questions, and really listen to them.
Be careful not to promise anything you can’t deliver, and if you don’t know the answers, it’s okay to say so and that you’ll work on getting those answers. But what your children ask will tell you what’s important to them. You may find their priorities surprising, but addressing their concerns will help your children adjust better to the reality of your divorce.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce
Remember that this conversation is about your kids’ needs, not yours. While it’s essential that you be truthful with them, the goal of the conversation is to give them the information they need and to help them feel better. With that in mind, do not discuss whose fault the divorce is, even if fault is clear in your own mind. It is perfectly fine to answer questions about the reasons for the split in a way that keeps adult issues for the adults. You should, however, reassure them that it is not in any way their fault, or their responsibility. Also reassure your kids that while you may be divorcing each other, you are not divorcing them. They will need to hear, over and over, that you will always love them.
Your children may react differently to the news than you expect them to, and differently from each other. One child may almost seem to shrug off the news of your divorce; another may sob uncontrollably or become angry. Your job is not to correct their reaction but to calmly accept it. Your children will take their cues from you. If you can remain calm, it will help them to do so.
Just as you are grieving the end of your marriage or relationship and the dreams you had for it, they are grieving the loss of family life as they knew it. And remember that they have even less control over the situation than you do, so it may feel even more overwhelming to them.
It’s important to help this first conversation about your divorce go as well as possible for your kids, but know that this is only the first conversation. Your kids will step away, process what you’ve told them, and come back with more reactions and questions. This discussion is not a single conversation; it will evolve over time. The good news is that gives you multiple chances to get it right, and to show your kids that, no matter what, you will be there for them through this process and beyond.
We invite you to contact our law office with any questions you may have about divorce involving children. We look forward to working with you.
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