Children often fear that they will lose one of their parents in a divorce or that their parents will abandon them and they will have to fend for themselves. Therefore, both parents need to convey in your words and actions that you will always be there for them.
Make sure that you follow through on your reassurances and promises. Otherwise, your children will become distrustful of you and cynical about your reliability and honesty. First and foremost, the best thing you can do is tell them prior to the separation.
Agree on what you’re going to say
It is best if you and your spouse can take the time to determine what you are going to say about your divorce before you talk with your children. Get your story straight so that you don’t contradict one another or argue while you are breaking the news to your kids. If you need help deciding what to say to your children, talk things over with your religious advisor or schedule an appointment with a mental health professional.
Unfortunately, some of you will not have cooperative spouses. That means that you and your soon-to-be-ex will probably have separate conversations with your children. Before you do, for your children’s sake, try to come to an agreement about exactly what you will tell them. If you don’t, you risk sending them conflicting messages about your divorce and its possible impact on them.
Tell them as a couple
If possible, you and your spouse should tell your children about your divorce together, even if it requires putting your animosity aside for a while. You will convey to them that, although your marriage may be ending, you can cooperate as their parents, and that they still have a family — just a different kind of family — and you will both remain actively involved in their lives.
How much information to give
Especially at the beginning of your separation or divorce, you’ll need to pick and choose how much to tell your children. Think carefully about how certain information will affect them.
- Be age-aware. In general, younger children need less detail and will do better with a simple explanation, while older kids may need more information.
- Share logistical information. Do tell kids about changes in their living arrangements, school, or activities, but don’t overwhelm them with the details.
- Keep it real. No matter how much or how little you decide to tell your kids, remember that the information should be truthful above all else.
Play fair with each other
You should both agree that when you talk with your children, neither of you will blame the other for your breakup or encourage your children to side with one of you against the other. Both behaviors are unfair to your children and can inflict irreparable emotional harm. When you criticize the other parent, your comments can backfire on you — your children may side with the parent you have maligned, and not with you.
Be honest, realistic, and avoid emotion
Be honest with your children about why you are getting divorced, but remember to keep their ages in mind and avoid sharing the lurid details behind your split. Tell them as much as they need to know and no more. If you haven’t been able to hide the discord in your marriage, you may want to acknowledge what your children already know by saying something like, “We know that you’ve heard us fighting a lot, and here’s why. . . .”
Don’t hide the fact that life is going to be different for everyone in the family because of your divorce. Prepare your kids for some of the changes to come. Then reassure your children that your divorce has not and will not change your love for them and that you will continue to be involved in their lives. However, don’t promise them things you can’t deliver.
Be very clear with your children that your divorce has absolutely nothing to do with them. Otherwise, they may feel somehow responsible for the divorce and assume that if only they had behaved better or gotten higher grades you would not be ending your marriage.
Try not to get emotional when you tell your children about your divorce. Watching a parent cry or get very upset can be frightening for children. Don’t add to their anxiety with histrionics and overly dramatic behavior. You’re likely to make them more concerned about your emotions than their own. Consequently, they may not let you know exactly what they are feeling.
Ways you can help them process the news
If your children are having trouble coping with the news of your divorce, all they may need to turn their frowns into smiles is some cuddling and a little extra attention. But sometimes it’s not that simple. When your children need more than what you can give them, consider involving a school counselor, mental health professional, social worker, relative, or another adult who’s especially close to your children. Participating in a support group may also be helpful to older children.
Tell your children’s teachers, baby-sitters and other caregivers, the parents of their close friends, and any other adults they see regularly about your divorce plans. Your heads-up will help them to understand that any significant changes in your children’s behavior may be traced to your divorce. Ask these adults to keep you informed of any such changes.
Contact your state’s family law court, a family law attorney, mental health professional, or a social worker who works with children and families to find out if any public or private resources (such as classes, workshops, and support groups) are available in your area that can help your kids cope with your divorce. These same resources may also offer counseling for divorcing parents.
Help your children express their feelings
For kids, divorce can feel like loss: the loss of a parent, the loss of the life they know. You can help your children grieve and adjust to new circumstances by supporting their feelings.
- Listen. Encourage your child to share their feelings and really listen to them. They may be feeling sadness, loss or frustration about things you may not have expected.
- Help them find words for their feelings. It’s normal for children to have difficulty expressing their feelings. You can help them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk.
- Let them be honest. Children might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Let them know that whatever they say is okay. If they aren’t able to share their honest feelings, they will have a harder time working through them.
- Acknowledge their feelings. You may not be able to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but it is important for you to acknowledge their feelings rather than dismissing them. You can also inspire trust by showing that you understand.
Watch your own behavior around your children
Monitor your own behavior around your children. What you choose to do (or don’t do, as the following list shows) can either help reassure them that things will be okay or can add to their anxiety about the future.
- Don’t fight with your spouse when your children are around.
- Don’t say negative things about your spouse to your children or to someone else within hearing distance of your children.
- Don’t get overly emotional around your children about your divorce or your life after the divorce. You risk increasing their insecurity and fear about the future.
- Don’t use your children as liaisons between you and your spouse.
- Don’t interfere in your children’s relationship with your spouse by trying to manipulate them into thinking of you as the “good parent” and your spouse as the “bad parent.”
- Don’t pressure your kids to choose sides.
- Avoid making dramatic changes in their daily routines. As much as possible, keep everything in their lives just as it was. Children generally don’t like change, and divorce is change enough.
- Don’t attempt to assuage your guilt over how your divorce may affect them — or try to get them to align with you solely and reject their other parent — by giving them special gifts or privileges or by relaxing your discipline with them.
- Avoid making your children your confidantes. Keep your adult worries and concerns to yourself or share them only with other adults.
- Don’t look to your children for comforting. It should work the other way around.
- Don’t expect your child to become “the little man” or “the little woman” of the house. Your kids are kids, not surrogate spouses.
Bahareh Talei, Psy.D.