How to Tell Kids You're Getting a Divorce: Tips to Help Parents Talk to Their Children About Divorce by Larry Sarezky Divorce Lawyer
One of the worst things about divorce – among oh, so many choices – is that your children need extra care just when you may be least able to provide it. Your challenge as a divorcing parent is to attend to your children’s fears and anxieties despite feeling preoccupied, and occasionally overwhelmed, by your own problems.
And unlike Jim Phelps at the outset of his seemingly impossible missions, you don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to accept yours as a parent.
It might help to keep in mind what we all know to be true: How you conduct yourself during your divorce is likely to have long-term consequences for your kids. If you are able to model calm, caring behavior under very stressful circumstances, your kids can learn valuable lessons from that. If you act out angrily and impulsively, perpetuating arguments with your co-parent, your kids will, unfortunately, pick up cues from that behavior as well.
And you may not have much time to acclimate yourself to your new reality. Because your task begins nearly immediately with the issue of breaking the news to your kids. How, what and when you first tell your children about the divorce will affect the way they see and understand everything that comes afterward. So, to use the legal terminology, try not to screw it up.
First, make sure that you’re emotionally prepared to discuss your divorce in a calm, reassuring manner. Even if you’ve never seen a therapist before, consider it now. There won’t be many times during your life when you need one more. An experienced therapist or divorce coach can be immensely helpful in helping you rebalance your life. They can also provide valuable advice to you as you begin to make decisions like how to drop the D-Bomb on your kids.
Try to make that decision jointly with your co-parent. Ask your co-parent to sit down with you and talk about breaking the news together to your children. See if you can agree on the messages to convey. Those messages should include reassurances of your love, and that both parents will continue to be involved in the children’s lives and to work cooperatively as their parents. Kids also need to hear that the divorce is not in any way their fault and has nothing to do with anything they have done. The fact that you and your co-parent are telling the children together will lend credibility to your reassurances.
Try to anticipate questions the children might ask and agree with your co-parent upon the types of answers to give. For example, pre-teens might want to know the following:
- What does divorce mean?
- Why do you have to get a divorce?
- Will you and [Mommy/Daddy] get back together again?
- Why can’t you make up?
- Will we have to move?
- Will I have to change schools?
- Is [Mom/Dad] going to move away?
- Will we still go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving?
- Who will be home when I get home from school?
- Can we all still live together in our house?
- Will you both be here on my birthday?
The “right” answers to children’s questions depend upon their ages, maturity and temperament. Children in different stages of development require different approaches. So consider telling teenage children first, before they hear about the divorce elsewhere or figure it out themselves. Younger children, on the other hand, often don’t need to know until their parents’ separation or some other event occurs that requires explanation.
Again, an experienced mental health professional or divorce coach can help you customize answers to fit your kids’ needs.
Keep in mind a few more general principles. Be positive with your children. Tell them about arrangements you’ve made for both parents to spend time with them. Routines offer kids a measure of security in their suddenly upside-down world.
Also, be honest. For example, don’t foster false hopes of a reconciliation. At the same time, avoid discussing things that will unnecessarily upset or worry your children such as financial problems or an extramarital affair.
OK, so if my co-parent and I are able to do this together, and there’s support available to help us do it right, what’s so “impossible” about it? What’s impossible about breaking the news, and about divorce parenting generally, is doing it perfectly. No one does. So don’t set an unachievable goal that will drive you nuts. An occasional slip coupled with an acknowledgment of your mistake will only show that you’re human, that you’re willing to acknowledge and take responsibility for your mistakes, and that you’re trying your best.
No child could ask for more.
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