Dread Telling Your Kids About Your Divorce? Here's How
Tips for making the dreaded conversation a bit easier for you and your family.
Posted May 22, 2020
For divorcing couples with children, one of the first and most difficult tasks is to tell your children about the divorce. It is a painful conversation you never planned to have when you were initially married.
There are many reasons you might dread telling your kids. I have counseled many parents who seek my advice and some of the most common reasons are:
- You don’t know what to say or how to say it.
- You don’t know how much to share.
- You are worried about hurting the children and/or that your children will be upset.
- You worry that you will be blamed by your spouse or your kids.
- You are overwhelmed by guilt, fear, or feel like a failure.
It is important to tell your children about your decision and plans before they hear it from someone else. You can control the narrative and monitor the tone and emotions. If you have shared your plans with others, remind them that you have not yet told your children and ask them to not say anything until you do.
Tips to help you tell your kids
- First, you and your spouse should plan what you will say and when you will talk with them. Decide how to start the conversation. Agree on a calm, loving, reassuring tone and a non-blaming explanation. Be sure you and your spouse agree about what will and won’t be shared.
- The only exception to doing this together is when it is not physically safe to do so.
- Tell the children only when you are 100% sure that you will be separating or divorcing.
- Talk with your children before you and your spouse separate. A few days before separation for younger kids, and perhaps a few weeks for older kids.
- Gather the family together, all the siblings, so that they all hear it at the same time. Older children will likely have follow-up questions, but telling them before telling your younger children burdens them with a secret.
- Think about the timing. Don’t have this conversation with your children before bed or when they are leaving for school, or during holidays or birthdays. Try to find a time, perhaps a weekend morning, when you can talk with your kids, and then spend some time together as a family. This reassures your children that you will both still be their parents. You might go to a park, ride bikes, or do a puzzle together. This way your kids have an opportunity to express their feelings or ask questions.
- Try to use the “we” word, even if the decision was made by just one of you. You might say, “We haven’t been happy together for a long time,” or “Maybe you have seen us arguing, and we want to stop that.”
- Share only what is age-appropriate—affairs, betrayals, arrests, financial matters, these are not appropriate to share with your children. You may be saying to yourself, “I want my kids to know the truth!” but this usually harms children and definitely doesn’t help them. It causes anxiety, worries, anger, or blame. Your kids need to attend to the business of being kids, while you and your spouse sort out the emotional and financial questions—these are adult issues. It is also important for your children to love you both. In the “bad old days” when divorce was more adversarial, taking sides with a parent was a cause of children's long-term damage.
- Tell your kids what will change and what will stay the same. Tell your kids what happens next, and if you know, you can tell them where each of you will live. If you have already developed a schedule of sharing time with your co-parent, you can let them know this too. You can reassure them about seeing their same friends or spending time with their grandparents or daycare providers. They will want to know if they will have to change schools or move out of the house. But don’t make promises you might not be able to keep, such as, "We won't ever move." Instead, you might say, "For now, we are staying here, and if that is going to change, we will let you know."
- Reassurance is key. You might say, “We are still a family, under two roofs. We will both continue to love you and take care of you.” Provide as much stability and security in your message as you can. Make sure your children know that this is not their fault, they didn’t cause the problems, and they can’t fix them: “These are grown-up problems.”
- Be sure to tell your children that you both love them, will always love them, and that it is fine for them to love both of you. They don’t need to find a parent to blame or to align with a parent who seems vulnerable or has been “wronged.”
- All feelings are okay. You may get teary, or your children may react—reassure them that expressing emotions is good and that “we will all be okay in the end.” Some kids don’t seem to react, and these children may need some time to process the news. Give them that space for now.
- Answer their questions the best you can. Most kids are primarily concerned with how this separation or divorce will affect them. Some kids want to know what will happen to their “stuff,” and when or whether they will see each parent. Some kids don’t know what to ask, and others will ask about where they will sleep, and if a parent is moving out, or if they will attend their same school. If some (or many) of these decisions have not yet been made, you can say, “We haven’t figured a lot of things out yet, but when we do, we will be sure to tell you. This is what we know for sure…”
- Check-in with your kids later. Ask them how they are feeling and if they have any questions. Without pressure, let them know that you are always available to hear their questions and feelings.
- Remember that the most damaging aspect of divorce is the ongoing conflict between the parents. Do whatever you can to end (or at least minimize) the conflict, so that your children and you can heal and move on.
Do you want more Information? In the footnotes, you will find some good resources, including a downloadable PDF from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020