Do you remember where you were on 9/11? If you’re an American who is old enough to remember 2001, the answer is: Yes! Why? Because watching rogue airplanes crash through the Twin Towers was an emotional event that changed America forever. To your children, your divorce is an emotional event that will change their lives forever. That’s why knowing how to tell your kids about divorce is so critical.
Yet, it is something that so many divorcing spouses get wrong.
According to therapist Lisa Herrick, PhD, 75% of divorcing parents spend less than 10 minutes telling their kids they are getting a divorce.
That’s an incredibly short time to spend talking about an event that will change your kids’ lives forever.
Here’s Why the Way That You Tell Your Kids About Divorce Is So Important
Children tend to internalize their parents’ decision to divorce. In other words, they often believe that your divorce is their fault. They make up stories in their head about how they did something that made mom and dad fight. They then think that fight led to your divorce.
That’s why you need to explain to your kids that that your divorce was YOUR decision. You need to make sure they know that nothing that they did or did not do caused your divorce. Most importantly, you need to tell them this over and over again!
You also need to reassure your kids that you and your spouse both still love them, and that you will be their parents forever. Then (and this is the most important part) you need to SHOW them that that’s true.
That means that you need to spend extra time talking – and listening! – to them. You need to make time to do things with them and make sure that they are adjusting to their new reality in the best possible way.
It will also help immensely if you and your spouse can minimize the drama that your children see. While you and your spouse will undoubtedly butt heads from time to time during your divorce, the more you can shield your kids from your fights, the better off your kids will be.
How to Tell Your Kids About Divorce
While there is no good way to break bad news to anyone, especially your kids, there is definitely a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” you should keep in mind when telling your kids you are getting a divorce.
Here are 7 things you SHOULD do when you tell your kids about divorce.
Plan the Discussion in Advance.
The quickest way to make your “Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce” discussion a total train wreck is to talk to your kids when they are tired, hungry, distracted, or have somewhere else to go. That’s why it’s so important to map out when, where, and how you are going to have “The Talk” as well as what you’re going to say.
If possible, you and your spouse should break the news to your kids together. Pick a time to talk when your kids will be at their best and have nowhere else to go. Allow plenty of time for your kids to process the news, and to ask questions. It will also help if you and your spouse can rehearse what you’re going to say in advance. While you may think that you know what you want to say, when your kids start having a meltdown and you are struggling to find the right words to comfort them, you will be glad that you rehearsed ahead of time!
Give Yourselves Plenty of Time.
Finding out that your family is changing forever is emotional! You can’t be sure of how your kids will react to the news of your divorce until you tell them. Your kids may cry, rage, bargain, argue, fight, or shut down. They may pretend they didn’t hear you, or they may act out. As a parent, you need to give them the time and space to have their reactions and feel their feelings.
You also need to make sure you have set aside enough time so that you can comfort, console, or continue to talk to your kids for as long as it takes to get them over the initial shock of your news. This is especially true if you have several children, since you may have to spend time talking to each of them individually afterwards.
Present a United Front
You may be divorcing your spouse but, like it or not, the two of you will be your children’s parents forever. Right now, you kids need you to be adults! They need you to be thoughtful, respectful of their feelings and mature. The do NOT need to get caught in the middle while you and your spouse openly blame each other for whatever went wrong in your marriage.
To the extent you and your spouse can agree on what to tell the kids about your divorce (even if the only thing you can agree on is that you’re getting a divorce!) your kids will benefit. They will be less confused and will feel less disturbed if you and your spouse can convey your news maturely and together.
Know Where the Kids Will Live Before You Break the News!
Your kids may love you, but they are also human. They are worried about themselves. They are worried about what their lives, and their family, will look like after you get divorced. You will ease their anxiety enormously if, when you tell them about your divorce, you can also let them know a little bit about what their lives will look like during and after the divorce.
Your kids need to know where they will be living, who they will be living with, and the basic details of their post-divorce lives. They need to know that they will see both of their parents during and after the divorce. They don’t need to know the exact parenting schedule they will have, how holidays will work etc., etc. You honestly don’t want to overwhelm them with a ton of details at this point. But being able to assure them that you’ve thought about them, and know a little bit about what will happen to them after your divorce, will lower their anxiety level.
Tell ALL of Your Children Your News at the Same Time
Kids are just like adults: they talk! If you tell your five year old you are getting a divorce now, and expect him to keep his mouth shut about it long enough for you to tell the same news to your ten year old when he gets home later in the day, you are dreaming! (And if your kids have cell phones, you KNOW they will be texting each other the news as soon as they’re out of your sight!)
Unless you have a really good reason for telling your kids about your divorce alone (i.e. your spouse is openly abusive or won’t participate in the conversation) it is always best to make sure that all your kids should hear about your divorce at the same time and in the same place. Not only can you then be sure that you are the first one to tell all of them about your divorce, but you will also provide an environment in which your kids can be there to support each other when you break the news.
Resist the Urge to Overshare!
Regardless of how young or old your children are, they don’t need to know every detail of why your marriage has fallen apart. They don’t need to know who cheated, or how many times it happened. They don’t need to know who lied, who hid money, or who acted like an idiot.
Remember: No matter what happened between you and your ex, your kids love both of you. They are a part of both of you. Most importantly, they deserve to have a relationship with both of you. While it’s natural to want to look like “the good guy” in front of your kids, sharing hurtful information that will change the way they see your spouse forever doesn’t help them. Just because they may be old enough to understand what happened, that still doesn’t mean they need to know it. (And if they’re NOT old enough to understand what happened, then they really don’t need to know it!)
Don’t Ask Your Children To Choose Which Parent They Want To Live With.
Asking your kids which parent they want to live with puts them right in the middle of your divorce. Don’t do that! You are the adult and you are the parent. You get to decide who your children live with. They don’t.
Yes, if your kids are teenagers they will want to have a voice in this decision. It’s perfectly okay to give them that voice. But there is a difference between giving them a voice and giving them a choice. You can and should listen to what they have to say. But the decision about what you will do should always lie with you and your spouse.
How NOT to Tell Your Kids You Are Getting a Divorce
Just like there are certain things you want to make sure you do when you tell your kids you are getting a divorce, there are other things that you want to make sure you don’t do.
Here are 3 things you definitely DON’T want to do:
Share Nothing About What Caused Your Divorce.
Believe it or not, under-sharing is just as damaging to kids as over-sharing. In order to help your kids understand and adjust to your divorce they need to know, in a general, and age-appropriate way, why you are getting divorced. This is especially true if you and your spouse didn’t openly fight in front of the kids.
Kids who have spent their lives thinking that “mom and dad are fine,” are more likely to be shocked `and confused when you split. Why? It’s because they didn’t see it coming. To help your kids adjust, you need to make sure they know that you and your spouse really had problems, even if they didn’t see them. It also helps to let them know that you both tried your best to make your marriage work, but you just couldn’t do it.
Let Your Kids Find Out You Are Getting A Divorce By Overhearing Your Conversation With Someone Else.
Kids have big ears. The last thing you need is for your kids to find out about your divorce when they overhear you talking on your cell phone to a friend. (And they really don’t need to learn the news when you scream at your spouse: “That’s it! I want a divorce!”)
If you want to tell your kids about your divorce in the healthiest, and most sensitive way, make sure that you keep your mouth shut about your divorce until you’re ready to break the news in a controlled family meeting.
Promise Them The Sun, The Moon And The Stars Just To Make Them Feel Better.
Yes, you feel guilty. Yes, you are upset at having turned your kids’ world upside down. But, buying your way out of the problem doesn’t solve it. It only encourages your kids to bury their feelings. It also teaches them that feeling bad is not okay and, when they feel bad, they can make it better by buying “stuff.” That’s probably not the lesson you want to teach them.
It’s even worse if you make your kids promises that you later can’t keep. When you do that you just disappoint them twice. As hard as it is to see your kids suffer, it’s only by allowing them to have their feelings that they will ever be able to work through them.
Put Yourself in Your Kids’ Shoes
No matter what you do, or how you tell your kids about divorce, the news is going to rock their world. There’s really no getting around that.
If you and your spouse can put your differences aside, control your emotions, and follow the tips outlined in this article on how to tell your kids about divorce, great! If not – if your spouse won’t cooperate or someone spills the beans in a less than optimal way – then do the best you can.
The bottom line is to use kindness, compassion, and common sense. Talk to your kids. Listen to your kids. Most of all, let them react in whatever way they react without judging them. If you do that, you will be well on your way to helping your kids adjust to their new reality in a positive way.