There are many times as a parent when we are faced with having difficult conversations with our children. Whether we are telling them a loved one has died or they will be moving to a different state, we know that after the conversation is over, their life will be forever changed in one way or another. Telling your children that you and your spouse are getting divorced is definitely one of those life altering conversations.
Often, parents get caught up in imagining the worst case scenario in this situation. These imagined fears often paralyze parents to delay the inevitable conversation. Postponing the discussion allows parents to sit with their stress and anxiety longer, which makes the anticipation build to a point where it doesn’t even feel as if they will be able to survive telling them. Having a plan can help make this daunting divorce task more manageable. As you read through these strategies, keep in mind that children are typically very resilient and often thrive in life as children of divorce. It is often not the act of the divorce itself, but how each parent handles and navigates the divorce that will shape the outcome for the children.
Make a Plan– If you and your ex are able to adhere to some level of civil communication, it is best to have a discussion about how and when you will tell the kids about the divorce. Will you be together during the conversation? What verbiage can you agree to? What questions can you prepare for and how will you respond? It is very helpful to be on a unified front as much as possible regarding your approach. This will help make your message congruent as well as sets the tone for working collaboratively as co parents. It also shows the children that despite the change in your relationship, you are still their parents and already acting as co parents.
If a collaborative family discussion would not be productive or possible, your discussion can still be very successful. Keeping the focus on your child and not attacking your soon-to-be ex will help them still feel the sense of security that they do not have to choose sides.
Be Honest– When discussing difficult situations with kids, it can feel uncomfortable and lead us to stumble over our words or use flowery language to try to lessen the blow of the message. This can be confusing and leave the kids unsure of what was actually being said. During the discussion, use words that are accurate to the situation, such as the actual words divorce and/or separation (depending on the case). A factual explanation of the definition of such words may be appropriate to help clarify meaning. It is best to not force the kids to read between the lines or guess what the message is.
Give an Age Appropriate Rational– Kids are curious and will wonder why this is happening. While you definitely don’t want to throw one parent under the bus or put the kids in the middle of adult problems, it is important to give them some reasoning for the divorce. If you say absolutely nothing as to why, they will imagine a scenario that may be far worse for them emotionally, such as blaming themselves. This is often the go-to thought when it is unclear as to why the parents are divorcing. Your reasoning can be general and not blame driven, yet still give them enough to help them understand. Something as simple as “we are no longer able to get along as a married couple” might be appropriate.
Reassure Them Regarding Changes that Will Impact Them– Kids are naturally egocentric and will worry most about how this will change their lives on a day to day basis. To help reduce their anxiety about this major life change, it is helpful to discuss what will and will not be different in their lives. For example, you many want to explain to them they will be spending time at mom’s house and dad’s house (a change), but no matter where they are, they will have their needs (food, clothing, shelter, activities, etc.) met (not a change). Giving them security around their daily lives will help them adjust to their new normal.
Tell Them It Is Not Their Fault– No matter what you say, this is the MOST important thing and it should be said over and over. Again, kids are egocentric by nature and will believe that they had something to do with the divorce or could have done something to prevent it. It is extremely important for their processing that you help them understand that this is an issue between you and your spouse and does not change your love towards them.
Kids will all react differently and are bound to have additional questions as the process continues. Keeping the conversations open and honest will help them process the divorce their own way and in their own time.