Divorce can be awful, and telling your kids is a very difficult part of the process. However, there are many things you can do to prepare for the conversation and to minimize your children’s feelings of uncertainty, fear, confusion, anger, and guilt.
While many parents are anxious to “just get it over with,” it is very important to resolve certain issues before telling your children you are getting divorced. You need to be able to answer your children’s questions clearly and confidently, so they feel safe and secure going into the monumental life changes ahead of them. Here are some of the questions you should be able to answer before you talk to your children:
What does "divorce" mean?
Why are you getting divorced?
Where will we live?
Who will we live with?
Where will the noncustodial parent live?
When will the noncustodial parent move out?
How often will we see the noncustodial parent?
Will we need to switch schools?
Will my siblings live with me?
Where will our pet live?
Will we need to share bedrooms?
Once you are clear about the answers to these questions, choose a time to tell your children when both parents can be there and you won’t be rushed. Then practice what you are going to say. It is imperative that you remain unemotional when telling your children about the divorce, because seeing parents sad, angry or afraid can be very upsetting and frightening for children, and they’ll be less likely to share their emotions because they’re worried about yours.
Begin the conversation by telling your children how much you love them and that nothing will ever change that. When you tell them you are getting a divorce, ask your children what they think that means. Children often don’t understand the meaning of divorce. After giving your children an opportunity to share their thoughts on divorce, explain that when parents divorce they stop being married, but do not ever stop being parents. Emphasize to your children that the divorce is not their fault (children often blame themselves when their parents divorce).
When your children ask why you are getting divorced, be honest without providing details or assigning blame. This is understandably challenging, but crucial. How you explain the divorce will set the tone for the future dynamic in your family. Children suffer greatly when parents blame each other for the divorce and provide anecdotes to back it up, so when the question comes up, be respectful and brief. Also, be sure to explain that the divorce is final, so your children do not maintain false hopes that you will reconcile.
Give your children the opportunity to ask questions and share their thoughts. Be patient if they lose control or choose not to talk about it. Successful adjustment to divorce involves ongoing communication, not just this initial conversation. Encourage your children to share their feelings with you, but do not be insulted if they’d rather not. If that happens, suggest they talk to another adult they trust (like a teacher, coach, or grandparent). I also recommend that children keep a journal to unload their feelings and read relevant books to help them cope. For example, Dinosaur’s Divorce by Marc Brown and Laurie Krasny Brown is a great resource for young children, while Divorce Is Not the End of the World: Zoe’s and Evan’s Coping Guide for Kids by Zoe and Evan Stern is more suited for children who are 9 to 12 years old.