Getting separated or divorced is stressful enough in itself, but telling the kids about it is a whole other stress ball of wax! Dr. Nanika Coor offers suggestions for communicating this difficult information to your children.
Even if you’ve never said anything to your kids about your relationship troubles, they can feel the tension and know something’s going on. It’s very distressing to kids when they can sense things changing but don’t understand exactly what or why.
Due to what can be an understandably distressing time for separating partners, sometimes you can’t or don’t spend enough time attending to the effects of this stressful disruption on your children. Or maybe you’re so worried about the negative impact on your children that you avoid the topic out of fear. Either way, your child might be left inadequately informed about the break up of their family unit.
Whether you’re at a loss for what you might tell them or you’re trying to protect their innocence, it’s important to remember that without clear explanations your child is left on their own to grapple with their confusion, anger, sadness, and uncertainty about their future. But, if they are well-informed and feel safe coming to you for clarity or comfort with any and all of their questions and feelings, your children can ultimately come through the separation or divorce with resiliency.
Remain calm, and speak openly and supportively to the kids to reassure them that you can work as a team.
When should we tell the kids we’re splitting?
It depends on your child’s age, of course, but a good rule of thumb is to wait until A) a change in their life is imminent and B) you have as many answers for them as possible so that you’re prepared for the many questions your children will have.
Children under 8 might have more difficulty conceptualizing their life far in the future. For younger children, hold off until you have most of the particulars nailed down and someone is planning on moving out of the family home or into a different bedroom very soon. The younger the child, the more you want to avoid creating an overly prolonged period of time where the child must anticipate and perhaps worry about a change they can’t quite visualize. For older children, you’ll want to give more lead time, particularly if a change of their school or neighborhood is involved in the transition.
You also don’t want your children to find out about your separation from someone other than you, so if you’re beginning to tell your community, tell your kids as well. Ideally, tell your children first, then alert your close community, giving them similar information that you’ve given your kids.
How do we tell them?
You’re going to want to help them understand that you’ll be separating or divorcing, that this is in no way their fault, that reconciliation is impossible, and that you love them and that that fact is never going to change.
They need to know what comes next and what will happen to them in all this. How will this separation affect their lives? You also want to let them know that they can ask you anything and you’ll try to give them answers and address their concerns.
Ideally, you’d cooperate ahead of time with your partner about what you will communicate to the kids. If the situation allows, you should both be present for the initial conversation and designate one person to do most of the talking and the other person to back up that parent in a supportive way. The both of you being present cuts down on the possibility of blaming one another. This, along with both of your capacities to remain calm, and speak openly and supportively to the kids, reassures them that you can work as a team in parenting them, even if you aren’t going to be together as a couple.
What do we say, exactly?
Lead with reassurance about what isn’t going to change—first and foremost, your love for them. List other things that won’t change: their school, their activities, etc. It’s unnecessary to tell them any intimate details about the breakdown of the marriage—they don’t need to be worried about that. Avoid making statements about "not loving each other anymore"—they may worry that you could stop loving them as well. When speaking of living arrangements, don’t use the word “visit.” Instead, say your child will be living with or seeing each parent on different days/nights.
Here are some words you might want to use to help explain your separation or divorce:
- “We’ve decided we will not be married anymore—we will be divorced.”
- “We’re just not as good at parenting while we’re living in the same home. We’ve figured out that we can each be happier and be better parents if we live separately. This may not be what you want, but it’s what we need to do and what’s best for everyone.”
- “This has nothing to do with you and it isn’t your fault in any way. There was nothing you could have done to prevent us from splitting up and there’s nothing you can do now to change it. None of this is about you.”
- “I know this feels really hard for you right now.”
- “We both love you and we’ll make sure you spend lots of time with both of us.”
- “I’m so sorry this is happening.”
- “Anytime you have questions about what’s happening, you don’t need to be afraid to ask us. We might not know the answer, but we’re always here to talk with you about anything.”
- “You’ll always be able to talk to either of us—whichever home you’re in.”
If they ask why the divorce is happening:
- “It makes sense that you’d want to know that. There isn’t a simple or easy answer to that. What we do know is that we’ll be better parents to you living separately and that even though this feels really bad right now, we’ll get through this together.”
The only way children will build resilience in the face of difficult life events is to live through them and discover that they can survive.
How will my kids react?
Each child will have a unique reaction to the news that their family as they’ve known it is coming to an end. Some will be in shock, denial, or disbelief, others will be sad, angry, or anxious. Your child’s intense emotions or distress can look like, affect, and be affected by many things. You might see changes in your child socially, emotionally, and academically.
Grief is a natural reaction for your child to have after hearing that you are separating or divorcing. This is a great loss. Kids can experience a yearning for parents to reunite, to spend more time with the absent parent, or they may feel intense anger or pressure to side with one parent over the other.
Although it may be hard to witness, and you may feel the urge to dissuade your child from expressing sadness or anger at this change, allow your child to grieve. The only way children will build resilience in the face of difficult life events is to live through them and discover that they can survive. At the same time, hold space for all of those feelings—don’t leave them to struggle alone with the meaning of this major event.
What if there are more complex issues to navigate?
This is a stressful period for your whole family and your kids won’t always see you at your best. If kids see you cry, reassure them that you’ll be okay. If you fly off the handle, go back and repair with them later. Remind them that you need to express your feelings as well and that you’re getting support for yourself (and actually do).
Sometimes talks between attorneys and mediation aren’t enough to help parents agree on a custody arrangement and the court becomes involved. This might entail an interview with your child by a mental health professional. Explain this to kids by saying something like: “We’re having a hard time deciding which days and nights you should be with each of us. We both love you so much and want to spend lots of time with you, so someone is going to help us figure this out. Someone will meet with you, and then they’ll give us some advice so we can make the right decision.”
If at all possible, make sure your child has a say in the potential living arrangements, how much time they’ll get with each parent, and other parenting plans—it will help them accept whatever the outcome is. And they deserve to give their input and have their ideas, wishes, and voices heard and considered, even if ultimately you or the court makes the final decision.
In complicated divorce situations involving parental mental illness, incarceration, substance abuse, domestic violence, or child abuse, speaking with a divorce-competent family therapist can help both spouses come up with a developmentally appropriate plan for how to tell the children. Also, consider a play therapist well-versed in divorce and childhood trauma treatments.
This is a discussion that will be ongoing as you all settle into your new normal.
Post-separation, how can we keep tabs on how our child is doing?
First of all, understand that telling your kids about the divorce isn’t the end of talking about it. Really, you’ve only just begun. This is a discussion that will be ongoing as you all settle into your new normal. As your children absorb and process new information and as they have new experiences and deal with new circumstances, they’ll circle back to you when they’re ready as long as they know you’ll be available to listen.
Periodically invite your child into one-to-one conversations. You can use door-openers like:
- “How are things going for you these days with the separation/divorce?”
- “What changes in your schedule or the way we’ve been doing things would make things easier for you?”
- “I’m wondering what advice you might have for us that could be helpful for you.”
If you haven’t already, make an appointment to sit down together and plan out what you’ll tell the kids about your separation. Agree on a day/time/place to tell the children and put it in the calendar. Let me know how it went once you tell them!
If your separation or divorce has already occurred, try using one or two of the door-openers I mentioned earlier. Did you get some information about your child you didn’t know before? Let me know how it goes!
Your child will do best when there is minimal family conflict, and they have warm and supportive relationships with both of you.
Communicating this difficult information together is no easy task—especially when discord between spouses is running high. But ultimately your child will do best when there is minimal family conflict, and they have warm and supportive relationships with both of you. For children who have historically lived with both parents, each of you is important to them, and they need to be able to love you both without feeling that either of you will disapprove.
Coping with the strong feelings following your divorce along with adapting to new logistics means your kids need to be able to count on you. It takes courage to allow your children to freely ask questions and express their concerns because they might unload blame, anger, or rejection.
So get and give yourself the support you need to show them that you are capable, steady, and reliable. It’s important that you create a peaceful and supportive atmosphere that makes space for your children’s complicated feelings, whatever they are and however long they go on for. Be intentionally present with them, acknowledge their emotions, and offer physical and emotional comfort when they’re upset. Get everyone psychological help when and if they need it. Be gentle with your children and with yourself as you move through this transition.