One of the most difficult tasks a family faces when confronting divorce is telling their children that a divorce is going to happen.
Parents often ask what is the best way to convey this news to their children? While this information is never easy to present, there are ways to do it which can reduce the negative impact on your children and allow for a better adjustment for everyone.
Timing is very important. Do not tell your children until both spouses have made a definite decision that they are going to divorce. Ideally children should be told two or more weeks ahead of the time that there is going to be a physical separation. This will give your children time to process, time to ask follow-up questions and to emotionally prepare for what is to come.
Always tell the children together.
Set aside a block of time for a “family meeting,” usually a couple of hours. Do it on a weekend or evening when no one is rushed and nothing has to happen right afterwards. Be prepared that it will be hard and emotional and that your children will generally be upset when they hear the news. Try to use a warm, loving and calm manner.
Based on the age and maturity of your children, you will want to give them information that is age appropriate and that they can comprehend. Let them know that it is a decision their parents arrived at after a lot of thought and effort. Children will want to know “why” this is happening? Give them the basic reason(s) you are divorcing. It might sound like “Mom and Dad are unhappy living together and we feel we cannot go on living this way any longer.” Be honest, but avoid providing excessive details. Do not disparage or blame your spouse.
It’s important to deliver some important messages to your children when telling them about the divorce. First and foremost, explain that your decision to divorce has nothing to do with them or anything they’ve ever done. Second, make sure they hear loud and clear that you love them and you will always be their parent and care for them as long as you are alive, even though you and your spouse won’t be married any longer. Provide reassurance and comfort.
After learning that their parents are divorcing, the next thing that children tend to worry about is “what’s going to happen to me?”
Here you want to reassure them that to the extent possible their life will stay the same as far as school, friends, activities and routines. If there are going to be changes in residence or schools you should try and tell them what the basic plan will be and when they will see each parent.
After you’ve had the initial conversation telling them about the divorce, encourage your children to ask questions and share their feelings and thoughts. Tell them it’s okay to be sad or mad, even with you. As time goes on, monitor their reaction to the news, particularly paying attention to any signs of depression, excessive worry or anxiety, or marked changes in their normal functioning. While some difficulty is normal in the short-term, if these signs persist you may want to consult with a child mental health specialist.