You have decided to separate and now you have to tell the kids. One of the most challenging and painful conversations you will ever face is talking to your kids about your plan to divorce. When you know that you will be separating or divorcing, it is essential to speak with your kids before they hear about it from someone else. Imagine how upsetting it would be for your children to hear this news from a friend or another adult! Children will probably remember this conversation, what you said, when it happened, and where they heard it. It would be best to work with your spouse to decide how you will inform your children of your plan to separate or divorce.
When you are thinking about telling your children you are separating or getting a divorce, the first point to keep in mind is what will the conversation look like, and second, what stage of development is my child at?
Adults see divorce for the complex, multi-faceted situation it is. Young children tend to view it in concrete and self-centered terms. Big-picture reassurances will mean little to a child who is wondering, “Where will the hamster live?” Understanding where kids are developmentally can help you help them adjust to the reality of divorce.
What should I tell my children?
Plan what you will say. Protect your kids from your hurt or anger by planning (together) when, how, and what you will tell your kids—plan to tell them on a day that allows for some family time, like a weekend. Don’t do it on a holiday or other special day, or just before school or bedtime. If it’s complicated for you to speak with your spouse, or you can’t agree on how you will do it, consider using the services of a mediator, divorce coach, or counselor to help you work out the details. Don’t blurt it out impulsively in an emotional moment. That definitely won’t go well and trust that the kids will remember this moment!
Should I talk to my children together or individually?
Talking to your children and doing it with your ex-partner might be difficult. However, it lets your kids know that you’re committed to working together as their parents. It is also important that your children hear this news simultaneously and directly from mom and dad, not from the sibling who heard it first. So if your kids are of different ages, plan to share the basic information with all of your kids together. Later you can follow up with the older children during a separate conversation. If you can’t speak to your children together due to conflict between you and your partner, seek help developing your plan.
What if they ask whose fault it is?
Avoid the temptation to assign blame or say whose “fault” this is. You may feel that you want your children to know the “truth”—”Mom had an affair,” or “Dad is leaving us.” This will cause your children to feel caught in the middle, in a loyalty bind, and that isn’t healthy for them. The “truth” is less important than providing the support and reassurance that your children need. To the extent that you can, use the “we” word when you are explaining the decisions that have been made. “We aren’t happy together,” or “We both want our arguing to stop,” or “We have tried to work out our differences, but we haven’t been able to.”
It is not essential or appropriate that you provide specific details about why you are planning to divorce. However, your kids will want to know why this is happening. Older children will press for information so that they can understand why their lives are going to change. So while you don’t want to share details of a personal nature, be prepared to give some general explanation without blame. “We hoped this would never happen, but we can’t seem to fix our relationship.” “We both want different things in our lives.” “We like each other and want to be friends, but we don’t love each other anymore.” Remember that these are grown-up problems that your kids, even intelligent and mature kids, can’t understand yet.
How much detail should I share with them?
The most important thing kids want to know is how your divorce is going to affect their lives. Your kids will want to know where they are going to live, with whom, and what about their lives is going to change. You can help your children to be prepared for these changes by being honest about what you know and what you don’t know. If you and your spouse have settled on how you will share time with the kids, let them know the schedule. Reassure them about the things that you know for sure will stay the same: possibly their school, or sports, or other activities. Be sure to let them know that your love for them will never change. Parents can divorce each other, but they never divorce their kids.
Unless you plan to nest, the more you can tell your kids about where the departing parent will be living and when they will be seeing them, the better. They will need to know, right away, that they will be able to maintain a quality relationship with both parents, even though they won’t be living under the same roof.
How much reassurance do my kids need?
Your children will need lots of reassurance that the divorce is not their fault. Stress that nothing they did could have caused—or prevented—what is happening. Since there are many unknowns at the start of separation, don’t make promises you may not keep. Don’t promise that you will never have to move or that they will still go to sleep-away camp in the summer unless you are sure. Instead, stick with the assurances you can make for the present time: “You will still go to your school,” or “You will still have Christmas and birthdays and sleepovers with your friends.”
What if my kids don’t react the way I thought they would?
The news may (or may not) be completely unexpected and will undoubtedly change their lives. Try to understand no reaction—which is a reaction—as you would if they were in tears or extremely angry. Your children may not know how to express their intense emotions. They may be overwhelmed and shut down. It may be some time before they can express their feelings. If you are calm when you tell your children about your plans to separate or divorce, they will have less anxiety and are more likely to anticipate being okay. However, it is okay for the children to see you upset or cry, giving them “permission” to have feelings. Just be sure that you can control your emotions enough, so they don’t need to take care of you. Remember, it is important to reassure them that everyone in the family will adjust to the changes and heal.
How do I know when the conversation is done?
Some kids don’t want to talk right away. Others will have many questions. To the extent that you can, be honest and straightforward in your responses. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them that you will let them know when you figure things out. This conversation is just the first, and it will unfold in many ways over time. Let them know that they can always ask new questions when they arise. But be sure to keep them out of the legal and financial issues as you move toward divorce.
How to speak to children based on their development
Although having a plan is the first step, it is imperative to understand how to speak to children based on their development. Here are some examples of children’s development issues based on age.
Children under 5 years old:
Babies and toddlers
- dependence on parents or caregivers
- no ability to understand complex events, anticipate future situations or understand their feelings
- beginning to develop independence, but still highly dependent
- limited ability to understand cause and effect; still unable to think ahead to the future
- understanding of the world revolves around themselves
- line between fantasy and reality is sometimes fuzzy
- some ability to think about feelings, but limited ability to talk about them
What to watch for:
Signs of distress in preschoolers include fear, anger or emotional instability, which may be expressed indirectly through clinginess, anxiety, whininess or general irritability. Preschoolers may also lose ground in their development. Toddlers who were sleeping through the night might start waking up more often, for example.
Consistent care and nurturing give children a sense of stability and reassurance. So as much as possible, toddlers’ lives need to be anchored by their regular routines (meals, play, bath, bed) in the presence of a parent who is there for them. This, of course, is important to all children, but especially after divorce. Preschoolers need simple, concrete explanations. Stick to the basics: which parent will be moving out, where the child will live, who will look after him, and how often he’ll see the other parent. Be prepared for questions; provide short answers, then wait to see if there are more. Don’t expect one conversation to do the job; plan on several short talks.
Children between 6 to 11-years-old:
Children 6 to 8-year-old
- a little more ability to think and talk about feelings
- broader, less egocentric view of what’s going on around them, but still limited understanding of complex circumstances such as divorce
- developing more relationships outside the home (friends and school).
Children 9 to 11-year-old
- more developed ability to understand, think and talk about feelings and circumstances related to divorce
- relationships outside the family (friends, teachers, coaches) are more developed and become a greater factor in planning the child’s time
- tend to see things in black and white; may assign blame for the split
What to watch for: School-aged children may show their distress as fear, anxiety, anger or sadness, and some display more clear-cut signs of missing their absent parent. Some may have fantasies about reconciliation and wonder what they can do to make that happen. Children who think that they might be able to bring their parents back together, or that they somehow contributed to the divorce, will have trouble getting
on with the healing process. So they need to understand that those are adult decisions which they didn’t cause and can’t influence. Additionally, they may demonstrate a sense of loyalty to one parent over another as a way of consoling that parent. Feelings of shame and guilt may arise.
Parental priorities: Stable care and routines are still important. Kids at the upper end of this age range are more able to talk about what they are feeling. However, just because they can doesn’t mean they will want to. Approaching the topic indirectly can help; saying, “Some kids feel sad, afraid or even angry when their parents divorce,” is less threatening than asking directly, “Are you feeling sad?” Books about divorce can also help kids focus on their feelings.
Children 12 to 14-year-old:
- greater capacity to understand issues related to divorce
- ability to take part in discussions and ask questions to increase their understanding
- beginnings of desire for more independence; questioning of parental authority
- relationships outside the family increasingly important
What to watch for: Irritability and anger are common in both parents or those who moved out. It can be hard to gauge how much of a young teen’s moodiness is related to the divorce or a preference over one parent from the other.
Parental priorities: Keeping open communication decreases the chance that emotional problems slip under the radar. Kids in this age group can be harder to reach, and sometimes they act as if they don’t want to be reached. But most teens and preteens still need and crave connection with parents. Acknowledge they have a voice and enquire about their view and preferences while maintaining your position as a parent.
It will take time for you and your children to adjust to this enormous change, and while you may be confident in the future you envision for them, it will take some time for them to see that future play out. In the meantime, be emotionally present and reassuring. Modeling your healing and recovery over time will help them adapt and heal too.
Rise Up Counselling can support you in developing a script and a plan to have this difficult conversation with your children. You can contact us at [email protected] for more information.