You and your spouse have finally decided: it’s time to start divorce proceedings.
This momentous choice is difficult to make, and it’s hard to share with others. You may be feeling a strong mix of emotions – part relief, part shame, part anxiety over what comes next. It’s hard to talk about with other adults, let alone your children.
The best way to approach the topic with your kids does depend on some factors, like age and living situation. It’s best to be loving and gentle when talking to kids about divorce.
Are you facing this challenging conversation? This guide to telling your children about divorce will help you prepare what to say and help your children understand.
Factors to Consider
Talking about divorce is hard, but it can be even more difficult with added complications of financial pressures and animosity. As you plan out the discussion with your children, consider their age, your current living situation, and any arguments between you and your spouse they may have witnessed.
Think about the age-appropriate way to talk to them. Before you sit down with your kids, make sure you have the right vocabulary and level of detail planned out. Younger children will need simpler explanations, while older children might want extra information.
Another factor to consider is the status of your relationship with your spouse. If it’s an amicable separation, the conversation might be a lot easier. On the other hand, a contested divorce is particularly hard on all family members and more difficult to explain.
Steps for Talking to Kids About Divorce
There’s no easy way to start the discussion, and there’s never going to be a perfect time to do it. Make your way past the initial discomfort of gathering everyone together for this serious discussion, and remember to be honest and remain as calm as possible.
1. If at All Possible, Do It Together
Divorce can be a time of immense pain for spouses. The relationship has failed, and many times one person makes the decision that the other one doesn’t want to face. However, if you can show unity and maturity by telling your children the news together, it can help them process what is happening.
Studies show that kids react positively to a unified message from their parents. This helps them feel more supported and less anxiety about what the future holds. For the sake of your children, it’s best to put animosity aside and face the conversation together.
2. Tell All Children at the Same Time
Sometimes people think that it’s best to tell the oldest child and shelter the younger ones. Unfortunately, this creates problems on both sides. The older child feels the burden of keeping a sad secret, and the younger one feels like you don’t trust them.
Sit down with all of your kids at the same time. This way, they all hear the same message and feel equal in your love and trust. It may seem daunting to face everyone at once, but it is the best thing in the long run.
3. Acknowledge a Range of Reactions
Some kids might be surprised, angry, sad – or even relieved. If your divorce comes after a lot of hostility and fighting, your children might feel react positively to the news of a separation. In other situations, children will be sad and long for “the way things were”.
It’s important to meet your kids where they are. Let them know that whatever they are feeling – shock, relief, happiness or sadness – it is normal. If you accept their honest feelings with openness, they will be more willing to talk to you about other difficulties in their lives.
4. Answer their Questions
Depending on the age of your children, they will have a range of questions for you. Some might not understand what the word divorce even means, while older children will want to know more details.
It is best to meet those questions head-on with age-appropriate responses. Trying to avoid discomfort or minimize children’s confusion will only make them feel more anxious. Be prepared to answer their questions, and you’ll find that it gets easier once the initial awkwardness is passed.
5. Be a Good Parent and Partner
As impossible as it may seem at the moment, you will still be co-parenting with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse. Maintaining a good partnership with them can help prevent problems down the line as your kids get older and become more independent. Being respectful of one another while talking to kids about divorce will help show that united front.
Avoid ascribing blame to your spouse, or badmouthing them in any way. This is simply good role-modeling, but it will also alleviate some confusion and sadness that your child may be feeling as well.
6. Follow Up
No matter what their initial reaction, this process will be scary for your kids. You might start to see some behavioral issues as they work through their anxieties. Younger kids might regress, while older children might act out, act clingy, or seek attention in negative ways.
You can’t just drop this information on the kids and consider your job done. Circle back with your kids to let them know you are there to help them. Let them use you as a safe outlet for their strong feelings.
Younger children might need the facts and discussion repeated to them before they will fully understand. Be patient with their questions, even if you’ve answered them before.
Be Gentle With Yourself, Too
If you’re reading this article, it’s clear that you want to be a good, loving, gentle parent to your children. But remember to go easy on yourself, too; divorce is a time of upheaval that can cause anxiety, shame, and sadness. Talking to kids about divorce will make it more real, but it can shine some light on the path as well.
Find a trusted friend or counselor to talk to you about your feelings as you go through the divorce process. Take the time you need to be healthy, so that you can be there for your children too.