Telling Your Children About Divorce

It’s got to be the worst part of getting a divorce — telling your children. You’d rather walk across hot coals than sit down and explain to them that Mom and Dad are ending their marriage. This will possibly be one of the scariest moments in your life. But how? Where do you start? How on earth can you put it all into words they will understand?

Age Appropriate

First, take the age of a child into consideration to predict their reaction to such news. Laura Broadwell’s article “Age-by-Age Guide to What Children Understand About Divorce” from Parents.com explains what children can understand at various ages and how to help them through times of crisis.  Even “babies are able to feel tension in the home (and between their parents) but can’t understand the reasoning behind the conflict.” So don’t underestimate the importance of having an age-appropriate talk, or in the case of infants, giving lots of “physical comfort.”

If you have multiple children, tell them all together. If you need to simplify your talk for the youngest of the group to understand, do so. You can always answer questions from the older children at a later time. Telling them separately and at different times – such as telling the older children first – is less desirable. It may make the older kids feel that they need to keep secrets from their younger siblings.

Prepare, Practice, and Plan

Once you understand how to approach the subject tailored to age, you can prepare for the conversation. Yes, prepare, practice, and plan. This should be done together, as a couple if possible. You may be destined to become exes, but you are still a team when it comes to your children.

Show them a united front with plenty of reassurance that you will always be their mom and dad and you will always be a family, just a different kind of family. If you can provide them with the unconditional love and support they need in the face of your own emotional turmoil, you will not only begin your co-parenting in a positive and cooperative light, but provide your children with a strong foundation for the future.

If you are unable to have this conversation together, at least take the time to discuss and agree upon what you will tell the kids and when. Consider the best interests of your children, not your own. What you say will have a great impact on them, and conflicting messages can influence their fears and feelings in a negative way.

In his article, “Mom and Dad Have Something to Tell You: Six Tips for Talking to Kids About Divorce,” on Psychologytoday.com, Kevin D. Arnold, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., talks about the published results Heather Westberg and her colleagues found in a Utah study they conducted. “Parents sometimes believe that children will forget the pain of divorce and grow to accept the marriage’s end. However, Westberg’s study shows that the memory of finding out sticks with children, potentially bringing back the pain when recalled. Unfortunately, many children do not forget that day.”

If you cannot get along with your ex, seek help from your religious advisor or a mental health professional to ensure your children still get the support they need.

Show Respect, NEVER Place Blame

In this first conversation (and all those following) do not place blame or encourage taking sides. Remember, any negative, hateful, and hurtful comments toward the other parent may result in a child feeling as if those disparaging remarks are directed at them. They are, after all, a part of that parent, and it is taken personally. The kids love you both, so don’t make them feel guilty for it and never place them in the middle of your battles.

Keep the Details Between the Adults

Be careful about relaying too much information to your children. Keep the details behind your decision to divorce between you and your spouse — they don’t need to know everything. What you do say should be honest and direct. If there has been discord in the family, acknowledge the fact with a simple explanation as to why, keeping in mind what they are able to understand for their ages. At all times, don’t forget to act the adult.

Preparing for Change

It’s okay to talk about how life will be different for the family because of your divorce. You cannot start preparing the kids for these changes too soon, but be sure to constantly reassure them that you will always love them, you will always be their mom or dad, and you will always be involved in their lives. They need to know that some things will never change.

Children can sometimes believe they are responsible for the split and you must make it very clear that the divorce is not their fault. You cannot say this enough. Also be aware that your kids can harbor secret hopes that you two will get back together and this requires patience and understanding.

Keep Your Emotions in Check

You need to remain calm and try your best to avoid getting emotional. It can frighten children to see their parents crying or angry. Turn off the drama and hysterics, set aside your anger and hurt. Don’t fight in front of the kids. It’s a simple rule, but one of the hardest to keep. But keep it you must.

Routine is Good

Routine is good for children. If possible, maintain as many routines as you can. Once you have two households, try to establish a similar structure in both homes to keep things familiar and comfortable for your children. Children need to feel safe and stability helps. It can be difficult to keep things organized in a single household, so look for ways to maintain and stay informed as you go about separate, yet connected, lives. There are many apps available for co-parents, such as those outlined in the article “Who’s On First? Apps For Co-Parenting.”

It’s Important to Listen

This is just the starting point. How you talk to your children – before the divorce, during the divorce, and after the divorce – will make it easier for them to deal with it. Your children will have many questions. Tell the truth, but keep it simple. Encourage them to talk about what they are feeling and thinking, and listen to what they have to say. Don’t forget to keep fun and laughter in your lives; it can be the best medicine for relieving stress for everyone.

After the Talk

On KidsHealth.org, “Helping Your Child Through a Divorce,” they offer advice on helping your kids get through divorce. “Every divorce will have an effect on the kids involved — and many times the initial reaction is one of shock, sadness, frustration, anger, or worry. But kids can also come out of it better able to cope with stress, and many become more flexible, tolerant young adults.”

Remember You Are a Team

Co-parenting is all about working as a team; with respect, honesty, and a shared love for your children. Always remember this as you raise them … together, for the commitments made when you had them, don’t end with divorce. You may no longer be a couple, but you will always be parents. If you act accordingly, your children will be healthier and happier. It will not be easy, but you can do it.

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