Telling the Kids About Your Divorce

kids and divorce

So you’ve made the decision to divorce.  Now, how do you break it to the kids?

Most divorcing parents dread this painful task.  Who wouldn’t?  But it must be done, so to alleviate your apprehension about it, here are some guidelines to help you prepare.

Preparing for the talk

  • Focus on the positive.  Having this talk with your children is an opportunity to let them know that you love them and will continue to do so, and that as a family you are going to be sure their needs are met.
  • Make sure most of the decisions have been made. They will have many questions (spoken or unspoken) about the logistics of the divorce.  You will want to be prepared to provide answers to as many of those questions as possible.
  • Agree on what to say.  Make sure you will not be giving the children conflicting stories or details.
  • Choose the right time. It is very important not to talk about the divorce with the kids until you are absolutely certain that it will actually happen.  Even then, you don’t want to do it too far in advance, or they may think you’ve changed your mind when nothing happens for awhile.  Wait until about a month before the changes you are going to discuss with them will occur.  This will give them some time to adjust to the news and to talk with both parents as questions come up.  Schedule the talk at a time which will not interfere with the children’s usual activities, and when both parents can be available for some hours afterward to give reassurances and just be there for them.

Telling them the news

  • Tell them together if at all possible. This will convey to the children that although you and your spouse are divorcing, you can cooperate as their parents and will both continue to be an active part of their lives.
  • Keep it fair. Both of you should agree that neither of you will put blame on the other when talking to your children.  Exposing them to your criticisms of each other is unfair and hurtful to them.
  • Be honest. Explain what divorce means.  Tell them why you are divorcing, but keep it simple and general.  Details are unnecessary and inappropriate.  Also, don’t gloss over the fact that life will be different for everyone in the family.
  • Keep it unemotional.  Seeing a parent cry or get highly emotional can be frightening to children and can increase their anxiety.  Keep calm, and your children will be more reassured.
  • Address their concerns and allay their fears. Some of the things they will want to know are:
    • The reason the divorce is happening.  Again, keep it simple.  For age-appropriate tips, you may want to refer to an article by nationally renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Ruth Peters entitled “Telling the Kids about Separation and Divorce” – Click to view
    • That they are not the cause of the divorce.
    • That their basic needs will be met.
    • That both of you love them and will continue to love them.
    • When the separation will take place
    • Who is going to live where
    • Whether they will be moving into a new place and changing schools
    • When they will be able to see the parent who is leaving
    • That they will be able to speak with that parent by phone
  • Welcome their questions. Ask your children if they have any questions or fears.  If they ask about a particular issue that is still unresolved, tell them honestly that you don’t know the answer to that yet, but you will let them know when you do.  Let them know that you will always be available to talk with them further and answer any future questions.  And be sure to keep that commitment.

Dealing with the reactions

  • Be prepared for a variety of possible reactions. Children respond in different ways to hearing this news.  They may become angry or upset, and if this happens it is important for you to stay in control.  Do not apologize or get defensive – just sympathize with them and tell them you understand this is a difficult and unhappy situation.  Some children may want to go to their rooms and be alone to think, while others will want to cling to you for reassurance. Give them space if they need it, and lots of hugs and affection whenever you can.  Be aware that they may show no reaction at all.  In this case, they may not know how to express their strong emotions and it may take some time for them to be able to communicate them.  Many emotions can come into play – fear of abandonment, sadness, guilt, blame, even denial.  Be sensitive to the unspoken feelings as well as to the overt reactions.
  • Give them time. It will take time for any child to adjust to this upsetting news.  Be patient, and expect to have more talks about the topic.
  • Provide them with support. If your children are having trouble coping with the situation, consider getting some professional help for them.  School counselors, mental health therapists, social workers, and support groups can be of assistance.  In the San Francisco Bay Area there is also an organization called Kids’ Turn (www.kidsturn.org).  They are a non-profit group that helps families through parental separation.  Their motto is “Putting kids in the center of healing, not in the middle of conflict.”  Services are free for the children, and the parents pay on a sliding fee basis.  No family is turned away due to inability to pay, and they conduct services in English, Chinese, and Spanish.

The divorce process is never easy – not for you or your spouse, and definitely not for your kids.  Children and divorce never co-exist easily, but breaking the news to them as outlined above can help them cope with their new reality.

The author of this blog is not an attorney and the information contained in these blogs should not be considered legal advice.  The information provided here is based on the experience of the author and some of her clients whose actual names are not mentioned.  Do not hesitate to seek the advice of an attorney if you have any legal questions

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