Telling Your Children about the Divorce

This telling is important and painful but it is also an opportunity to let them know, first and foremost, that you love them, and to demonstrate that – as a family – you’re going to meet their needs and answer their questions. These guidelines will help you prepare for this event.

Before this talk takes place, be absolutely certain that the divorce or separation will actually happen. Once that has been determined, consider the guidelines below.

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 of you need to convey in your words and deeds that you will always be there for them.

Kids may wonder if they are part of the reason their parents are divorcing, e.g., “If only I had been better maybe they wouldn’t be so stressed out and they would be getting along better.” Kids look for reason why things happen and their imagination often goes awry. Kids hope that maybe, if they could just change something, then their parents wouldn’t split. They want to be able to fix the problem. If they figure they’re at fault, then if they can clean up their “fault” then maybe the problem would get resolved. It’s their wishful way of having a chance at curing the situation. Give them frequent assurances that it is not their fault and that you love them now and always will.

Make sure that your reassurances and promises are true and based in reality. Otherwise, your children will become distrustful of you and cynical about your reliability and honesty.

This message is important and painful but it is also an opportunity to let them know, first and foremost, that you love them, and to demonstrate that – as a family – you’re going to meet their needs and answer their questions. These guidelines will help you prepare for this event.

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. 2. If at All Possible, Both Parents Should be Present When Telling the Kids.

This sends an important message to your kids that you’re both capable of working together for their benefit. In addition, you’ll want to tell all of the children at one time. It’s important that each child hear this news directly from mom and dad; not from the sibling who heard it first. If your kids are different ages, plan to share the basic information at the initial gathering, and follow-up with the older children during a separate conversation.

Remain calm

The manner in which you present this news to your kids will, in large part, affect the degree of their anxiety and whether they anticipate a positive outcome for themselves. If the meeting becomes a screaming match, your kids will be far more unsettled about what is happening. Instead, avoid the tendency to assign blame or say whose “fault” this is. To the extent that you can, try to incorporate the word “we” when you’re explaining the decisions that have been made.
Play fair with each other by avoiding blaming

Be sure that neither of you blames the other for your breakup. Don’t make children have to side with one of you against the other. Remember that 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 and realistic

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. Reassure the children of your unconditional love.

Your children will need lots of reassurance that the divorce is not their fault. Specifically tell them that nothing they did could have caused – nor prevented – what is happening. In addition, make sure both parents collectively and individually convey their unconditional love through words and actions. Avoid making long-range promises about an uncertain future. Instead, stick with the assurances you can make for the present time and be generous in sharing your hugs and affection.

Try not to get too 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. You need to be taking care of them; they shouldn’t feel that they have to be taking care of you. Don’t “parent-ify” your kid.

Provide a general reason for what is happening

It is not important, or even appropriate, that you provide specific details about why you are planning a divorce. However, your kids will want to know why this is happening. Older children will recognize that this is a huge life change, and they will weigh that change against the reason you give them. So while you don’t want to share details of a personal nature, be prepared to give some type of general explanation.

Should children be told about an affair?

The question of “telling the children” about a parent’s affair is a common concern. In general, when kids know there’s something wrong and don’t know what it is, they tend to imagine that it has something to do with them. So they need to be given some kind of explanation for whatever emotional upheaval they may be sensing between their parents. But there is no simple guide to follow. Each parent must make their own decisions about telling the children.

Young kids have no need to know about affairs; older kids may already have an inkling to what’s going on or maybe even have it figured out.

If an older kid asks specific questions, it’s time to give honest answers – not brutal answers, but answers which reflect the reality of what has been happening, e.g., “Mom and Dad took each other for granted so long that Mom didn’t feel precious anymore so, when Mom found someone who made her feel precious again, she spent a lot of time thinking before she decided she wanted to leave Dad for what she hopes will be a better future.” Remember to tell the kids that a Mom or Dad’s love for a child never ends, that parents don’t divorce kids.

If the kids are old enough to ask for more information, they’re likely ready to hear the truth. If you hide the truth and they find it out from a third party or, worse, from learning from direct observation, then they have lost faith with both parents for not telling the “whole truth.” For example, when a kid is old enough to ask, “Is Santa real?” it’s time to talk about Santa as a representation of the “spirit of giving and receiving” and not a “real” being. A kid who already has things pretty well figured out is likely to feel discounted by parents who try to soften, minimize or deny principle factors in deciding to divorce. Too often, one of the divorcing parents cites “not wanting to upset the kids” when it’s also very likely that the secrete is to be kept from the kids, not for their sake, but for the parent’s! Check out who’s needs are being met by asking, “Who’s likely to be more upset with a fuller disclosure?”

Children can best learn honesty by seeing it in their own families. So as to whether/when/how to tell the children, it’s probably not so much a question of whether as of when and how.

Of course, this needs to be part of a larger effort to talk honestly with our kids about a variety of sexual issues—at levels that are appropriate for the age of the child. By teaching (and practicing) honesty with our children, we increase the chances that they will develop into sexually responsible adults and avoid the kind of deception inherent in having affairs. In fact, the secrecy and deception we learn as teenagers (hiding our sexual activity from our parents) is the same kind of secrecy and deception used by people having affairs in hiding it from their spouse. So “telling the children” may be seen as part of the larger responsibility of preparing them to cope with (or avoid) the difficulties inherent in any future intimate relationship, especially the pain of extramarital affairs.

This is not to say that a parent owes a questioning kid all the details. Deeply personal data are best left private.
Explain that some things are not for sharing. If the kid is persistent, ask why there’s a need to know. If the kid is inappropriately persistent, use Ann Landers’ wonderful come-back, “You’re going to have to forgive me for not answering your question because I’m going to have to forgive you for asking it.”

If asked a question too painful to deal with, say so, and assure your child that, given some time, you will heal and then will be the time to talk about it…but not yet and not now.

Again, if asked a question you want to answer but you don’t know how, say you’ll answer the question after you’ve had some time to figure out how to respond.

Ways you can help them absorb the news

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.

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.

Provide specific details about the changes your kids can expect

Your kids will want to know where they’re 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.

Anticipate the following questions

  • Where am I going to live?
  • Where’s Mommy going to live?
  • Where’s Daddy going to live?
  • Where are my brother and sister going to live? Will we stay together?
  • Will I have to move?
  • Will I have to change schools?
  • Will I have two houses and two bedrooms?
  • Where will my stuff go?
  • Do my friends know?
  • What can/should I tell them?
  • Will everyone else know?
  • Is this my fault?
  • Are you mad at me?

Provide specific details about the parent who is leaving the home

The more you can tell your kids about where the departing parent will be living and when they will be seeing him or her, the better. They’ll need to know, right away, that they will be able to maintain a quality relationship with this parent, even though they won’t be living under the same roof. Anticipate the following questions about the parent who is leaving:

  • Where will he/she live?
  • When will I see him/her?
  • Can I stay over?
  • Will I have my own room there?
  • Can I leave some of my stuff there?
  • Will I have any friends there?
  • Can I still see my old friends when I’m there?
  • Will he/she drive me to see my friends?
  • Will he/she still come to my… (baseball games…soccer games, etc.)
  • Will we still be close?
  • Will he/she still love me?

Be sensitive to how the kids react to this news

What you’re telling them may be completely unexpected, and will most assuredly change their lives. Try to be as understanding of no reaction – which is a reaction – as you would be if the children were in tears or extremely angry. Your children may not know how to express their intense emotions appropriately, and it may be some time before they can articulate their feelings.

Welcome their questions

Most likely, the children will have many questions. To the extent that you can, be honest and clear in your responses. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them that. Also, realize that this conversation will unfold in many parts. After you’ve told the children about the divorce or separation, expect to revisit the topic many times as new questions and concerns arise. If they ask you a question you don’t know how to explain, tell them that you need time to think about it and that you’ll tell them as soon as you get it figured out, e.g., “You have a better question than what I have as an answer so I need some time to think about it and then I’ll tell you.”

Give them time to adjust to the news

It will take time for your children to adjust to this news. It is a huge change, and while you may be confident in the hopeful future you envision for them, it will take some time for them to see that future play out. In the meantime, be patient with their needs and make the effort to be a steady presence in their lives.

What to Say

  • Explain that the parents used to love each other very much, but now are not happy together and have decided to move apart. It’s OK to tell the children the things you have tried to do to make things work out, but that these efforts haven’t worked. Explain the marriage will be ending, the parents will not live together anymore, but the parental relationship will not end.
  • Explain why the marriage is ending. Some parents fear telling too much to the children, but clear explanations keep children from blaming themselves. Further, it is better that the children hear the truth from their parents in a planned way, rather than overhearing it later, coming up with explanations for themselves, and becoming more distressed. If you will no longer be fighting so much, avoiding each other, and feeling unhappy and tired as a result of constant marital stress, let them know that this will make some things better.
  • If an affair was involved, tell them that one parent began to love someone else because of the problems in the parents’ relationship. If you are angry and hurt, say so, but recognize that both parents have been hurt and are unhappy.
  • Experts recommend consideration of telling the children who decided to end the marriage. You may decide this is too much information, or you may decide that it is simply too painful to discuss. However, the parent that has decided to end it may be able to reassure the children in clear ways so they don’t fear the parent ending their relationship as well.
  • Be prepared to repeat the things you told them again. Hearing it more than once will reassure them that you still mean it, help them understand what it all means, and let them know you still love them and will be there to explain the world to them.
  • Be prepared for questions you didn’t expect to come up, misunderstandings of what’s happening and why, and the children’s difficulty accepting this. Children often are scared to ask deeper or more difficult questions for fear of the answers, or for fear of angering, hurting, or driving away a parent. Schneider and Zuckerberg in their book, Difficult Questions Kids Ask [and are too afraid to ask] About Divorce, is a good book to understand what children say, and what they mean but can’t ask, and how to hear and answer them.
  • For younger children, you can also expect some regressive behaviors; that is, they will become more like an even younger child for a time. They may be more clinging, return to thumb sucking or behaviors they ceased long ago, and may become irritable, withdrawn, or fussy.
  • For school age children, you may find children fight with each other or friends, and they may be more aggressive than normal. Children may have more stomach aches and headaches. Younger children have less complex moral reasoning, and may be concerned about what is fair, who is wrong, and who is being punished. Help them understand that this is not the case; it is unfair on everybody, and nobody is “wrong” or being punished by the divorce.
  • Children may try to side with one parent or the other, and during this time it is easy to feel you “won” over the other parent, or that the children love you more because you are the “better parent.” During this stressful time, the children’s love and affection may be much more special, soothing, and desired for you. Be careful not to let your emotions in this confuse their needs. They may be trying to align with one parent only out of fear that if they do not, they could lose both.
  • Pre-teens and teens may be more vocal about their feelings, or may become more withdrawn and angry or depressed. They may want to live with one parent over the other, change their minds, and be angry with both of the parents because they are the ones who created the situation. Allow them their emotions and time to deal with this, and work hard to remain there for them while they work through conflicting desires and feelings of divided loyalties.
  • Also expect school performance to drop quickly. A call to the school teacher, counselor, or nurse to let them know what is going on might be helpful too. You don’t have to give them details, but letting them know your child is upset, confused, or frightened about the divorce is enough.
  • Be on the lookout for younger children that have problems coping with this; watch for eating and sleeping disturbances, loss of interest in formerly fun and desired activities, or nightmares. Realize that sometimes they will feel sad, and they need to feel this. Don’t try to “entertain away” their sadness, or tell them they shouldn’t feel whatever they feel, including sadness, anger, confusion, fear, etc… Schneider and Zuckerberg have short scripts for parents to consider that suggest ways to explore a child’s feelings, bring up difficult topics, and respond soothingly to children.
  • Be on the lookout for a teen that has problems coping with this; watch for extended signs of depression and withdrawal, disconnection from friends, signs of drug or alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, and oppositional behavior.
  • For some kids, acting out seems a natural response; if problems result from the divorce, mom and dad will have to get back together. Don’t be afraid to get professional help for them, or for yourself, at this time to help deal with this. An individual therapist skilled in working with children can help them understand what’s happening and process their reactions. A family therapist can help the family adjust to this time more easily as well.

Some parents worry that being in therapy after the divorce will make courts, lawyers, and any professionals involved in the divorce think they are crazy. Most professionals and courts will not; they will see it as a sign that you are trying to deal effectively with this.

What not to say

  • Don’t Speak Negatively About the Other Parent – Being a product of yourself and the other parent, your children will not be able to separate negative words spoken about the other parent from their impressions of your feelings about them. So as angry as you might feel toward the other parent right now, remember that criticizing him or her in front of your children will feel to them, either subconsciously or consciously, as though you are criticizing them as individuals, not just the other parent, with whom you may be legitimately angry.
  • Don’t Change the Subject or Avoid the Conversation – Honor your children’s need to discuss their questions. This is natural and should not be avoided or discouraged. In addition, you may find that your children will ask certain questions again and again. Try to empathize with their need to familiarize themselves with as many details as they can, and be patient when they approach you with the same questions you discussed yesterday.
  • Don’t Share Inappropriate Details – Respect that your children do not need – and should not be privy to all the gory details. Deeply person information is private. Keep those details to yourself when responding to their questions. In addition, if you feel they are pressing you for more information than you are prepared to share, tell your children outright that some of these details are adult in nature, and while you want to answer all of their questions, there are some details that you will not discuss.