Telling your children about your divorce can feel stressful and overwhelming. It is so hard to feel like we are letting our children down and can dig up feelings such as guilt, remorse, feelings of unworthiness and failure, and anxiety about whether you have ruined your children’s lives, among others.
How we tell our children about divorce can shape their entire experience, minimize the stress that they experience, and set the tone for how your family life will unfold as you redefine your family. Here are some guidelines to help you prepare your children for this enormous change in their lives.
1. Take your time and have a plan. There is no one right or easy time to tell the children. It can be tempting to want to speak with your children right away to protect them from the inevitable emotional roller coaster they will experience. It is imperative, however, that you resist this temptation until you and your spouse have created at least a temporary parenting plan and discussed how and what you will tell the children so they can clearly understand how this will affect their lives. In many cases, the age of your children can inform when to tell the children. Elementary age kids and below generally do not need to know more than a few weeks before one of the parents moves out. Adolescents and teen-agers may need a few months to process and plan for the changes. It should go without saying, that you should avoid telling the children around their birthdays, holidays, or other special occasions.
2. Break the news together. When you are ready, break the news together. This will allow the children to feel more confident that the decision is mutual, that no one is at fault, and that they don’t have to choose between their parents. You and your spouse should discuss your children’s anticipated response and prepare yourself emotionally so that you can be supportive of them together as they respond.
3. Keep it simple. When you tell your children, it is helpful to draft a script with your spouse. The goal is to explain the situation in a way that will offer them a sense of security and also prepare them emotionally for the changes that are coming. The conversation should be age appropriate and, in most cases, relatively brief. The exact length will be specific to your situation, but it’s best to keep the message to a few simple points, and then leave extra time for questions and emotional reactions. If you children are far apart in ages, you may wish to have a shorter conversation with your younger children, then a longer, separate conversation with the older ones.
4. Explain the new normal. Children benefit from predictability and certainty. The specific message will be tailored to your individual situation, but there are some things all children need to know. First and most important is that they will continue to have two parents who love them and who will always love and care for them, that the children will continue to be their number one priority, that each parent will spend as much time with them as possible, and that neither parent will be leaving them, they will just be sleeping in a different home. Sharing expressions of love offers your children assurance that all of you will move forward with confidence, even though there will be periods of sadness and other emotions. The children also need to know that the separation and divorce is a reflection of problems between their parents and has nothing to do with them; they were not the cause of the problems and there is nothing they can or need to do to change the situation.
5. It’s Okay to be sad. Your children, and you, will likely get emotional during this conversation. This is a sad and deeply emotional time for all of you. That is not only OK, but is to be encouraged. If your children cry, let them know that is a totally normal and expected response. While you may be emotional too, be sure to focus your full attention to them and respond to their needs as necessary. Offer them comfort and be sure to hug, touch and provide whatever nurturing presence they will need.
This is likely to be one of the most intense emotional experiences of their lives. Following these simple steps and being really intentional about how you inform your children about these enormous changes to their life will put your children in the best possible position to heal and have hope for the future. Moreover, this will shape all of your family relationships and create a framework for positive outcomes for your entire family.
For more information and help drafting a script, I’d recommend: Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce, by JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D.; and/or Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way, By M. Gary Neuman, L.M.H.C., with Patricia Romanowski.