Telling children about a divorce can be one of the most difficult aspects of the process. It is likely that no matter how gently parents break the news, children will become upset and have many questions about the ways the divorce will affect their lives. Some of these questions do not have easy answers. However, approaching the conversation with proper planning and a commitment from both parents to make the children their top priority can ease the process.
The time and place parents choose to tell their children about their pending divorce can set the tone for the conversation. Discussing divorce during a stressful or important time in children’s lives such as holidays, end-of-year exams or birthdays may cause them to become overwhelmed.
Developing a script for what to say during the conversation and how to say it can provide a guide for the conversation. This will help parents anticipate what questions their children may have and enable them to plan their responses. Family or child therapists can often provide input on talking with children about divorce.
Some parents with several children decide to tell only the older children about the divorce. Children often experience feelings of sadness, anger or guilt after learning their parents plan to end their marriage. Telling only older children about the divorce may cause them to believe that they must keep secrets and protect their younger siblings from these feelings, adding an additional burden in an already stressful time. Child psychologists often recommend bringing the entire family together to discuss an impending divorce.
Having the Conversation
Parents who are undergoing divorce often have tense or even antagonistic relationships. Although it may seem like a good idea for parents to talk to children separately, having both parents present reinforces the message that both parents’ love is unconditional and that neither parent is mad at the children.
Sticking to the script helps parents avoid blaming one another or having outbursts that can lead to arguments. Children may feel forced to choose or take sides when they hear each parent assigning fault to the other, and they are less likely to feel safe expressing their feelings. In addition, an argument between parents may only intensify the anger, crying or panic a child is likely to experience upon hearing their parents are divorcing. Avoiding arguments helps parents focus on their children’s feelings and needs.
Talking about the situation in honest but simple terms will help children of all ages to understand parents’ decision to split up. It is not necessary to go into too much detail. Emphasize that both parents’ love for the children is unconditional, that they are not at fault and that the decision was mutual so that the children could remain parents’ top priority.
Although some uncertainty about future living arrangements and other aspects of divorce is likely, being candid about what is known and unknown can be helpful. Truthful answers show children that they can trust their parents to be honest with them and encourages them to be open with their questions and their feelings. Parents often want to make children feel better when they are crying or angry with statements such as, “It will be all right.” However, this can send mixed messages. Allowing children the space to experience and express their emotions helps them to process the news.
Children may need to leave the room to cool off, especially if they are crying or shouting. Allowing them a few minutes will also give parents a break. After children calm down, parents should approach them again together.
After the Conversation
Children may feel more comfortable talking to teachers, clergy, other family members or other trusted adults than to their parents. Though parents should continue to promote openness in the family, encouraging children to talk to anyone they feel comfortable talking to will give them an outlet for their feelings. Informing teachers and other important people in children’s lives will alert them that children may need someone to talk to and prepare them for any behavioral changes.
Children may feel constant anxiety about the upcoming changes in their living situations, especially if parents are unsure about what these changes will be. Offering whatever assurances are possible can ease their worries about staying in the same school or seeing both parents, but parents should avoid making any promises they may be unable to keep.
Some aspects of divorce such as the division of property may be prolonged. Extended divorce proceedings may lead children to believe that their parents are still trying to work things out. Dissolving the marriage as quickly as possible is often best for children since the false hope of parents reuniting can be a continual source of stress. If prolonged proceedings are unavoidable, continue answering children’s questions as honestly as possible.