It’s the conversation no parent wants to have, but many parents must: talking to kids about divorce. There is nothing we can do to make this conversation a happy one, but as divorce attorneys who have been practicing for decades, we know there are some things you can do to make it a little easier for everyone.
There’s no way around it: this is a conversation that your kids will remember for the rest of their lives. That should be incentive enough to do everything possible to get it right. You should think very carefully about when, where, and how to tell your children you’re getting a divorce.
If at all possible, this is news that you and your spouse should break together. Telling your kids about the divorce together accomplishes a few things. It reassures them that you can and will still work together to do what’s best for them. It allows you to give your children a consistent message about why you are divorcing and what will happen next. And it allows them to ask you both questions at the same time.
You should also tell all your children about the divorce at the same time if at all possible. You can, and should, have one-on-one conversations about it later, but the initial news should come to all of your children at the same time. You want the news about the divorce to come from you, not from a distraught sibling who heard it first. You should tell your children about your divorce before you tell others for the same reason. Imagine if you told your sister you were planning to file for divorce, she discussed it with her husband, their child overheard them, and told your child. That happens more than you’d think, and it is not the way you want your child to learn about your divorce. It needs to come from you and your spouse.
This is going to be life-changing news for your kids, and they are going to need time to process it. So choose the time carefully and clear your calendar. For example, don’t tell them right before school, soccer practice, or bedtime. Don’t tell your kids about your divorce on a holiday or vacation; although you may have lots of free time then, dropping this news will forever poison what should have been happy memories. A quiet weekend morning or afternoon in the privacy of their own home is probably best for most families.
Your divorce may have been a long time coming, or it may have been precipitated by something you or your spouse did. It may be mutual, or one spouse may not want the divorce. Your situation may be amicable, or hostile. When it comes to telling your kids, however, there is only one way to go.
You need to present your divorce as a decision made by you and your spouse, without blaming either of you. If there is fault in your divorce, this is not the place to air or litigate it. Your children need to understand that this is an adult decision that you reached together. Throughout your divorce and its aftermath, you should avoid speaking negatively about your spouse to your children. Telling your children that you are getting divorced is a good time to start practicing that policy.
Even though you are not assigning blame, your children may still need some explanations about why you are getting divorced. If they have heard you arguing over time, you can say, “We wanted the arguing to stop so everyone can live in a calm and peaceful home.” If your kids were unaware that you weren’t getting along, you might say something along the lines of, “We never wanted this to happen, but our relationship is broken. We can’t fix it, and we need to not be married anymore.”
Young children may need to hear that they did not cause your decision to divorce. Younger kids may believe that if they had only behaved better, their parents would still be together. They may also harbor fantasies that if they act just right, you will get back together. You must kindly and firmly help them understand that they have no fault or responsibility in your divorce, and that even if you and your spouse are no longer married, you will both always be their parents and will always love them. You should tell them that specifically.
Regardless of the age of your children, they will likely have one primary concern after you tell them you are getting divorced: “What does this mean for me?” Children are egocentric by nature. When their world has just been rocked by the monumental news of their parents’ divorce, it’s natural for them to wonder how their lives will change. Where will they live? Will they have to change schools and leave their friends? Who will help them with their homework or coach their soccer team?
To help your kids begin adjusting to your divorce, let them know what they can expect to stay the same, and what will be different. If you don’t know how something will unfold, be honest about that. It’s much better to say, “I’m not sure when you’ll be at (other parent’s house) and when you’ll be at mine, but we’re working it out,” than to make a promise you can’t keep.
Your kids may have some questions immediately after you tell them you’re getting a divorce, but more questions will probably arise as the news settles in. Let your kids know they can come to you (or call, or text) if there’s anything they need to ask or say. Avoid pressing them about how they’re feeling, but let them know they can talk about their feelings with you if they want to. Let them know it’s okay to be angry, sad, worried, or even relieved.
Sharing your own feelings about the divorce can be a good thing if it gives your children permission to express their own. That said, it is critically important not to burden your children with your emotions! It’s one thing to let them see you cry and to say to them, “It’s okay to be sad about the divorce. I’m sad, too, but I know things will get better.” It’s another to emotionally dump on them. Your children should not feel like they have to take care of you. If you are unsure about how to appropriately share your emotions with your kids, or if you have any other questions about delivering this message to your children, consulting a therapist experienced in divorce issues is an excellent idea.
Talking to children about divorce is difficult, but by putting thought and care into how you do it, you can minimize the negative effects of divorce on your kids. To learn more about divorce in Maryland and the District of Columbia, we invite you to contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.