Nothing about divorce is easy. But for parents, perhaps the most difficult aspect of a divorce is deciding how to tell your children that you’ll be getting divorced, and having conversations about their feelings about the divorce as things proceed. Nobody plans to eventually get divorced, and nobody rehearses what they’re going to say to their children about divorce before they know they’re getting divorced. That means that when you do have to have those conversations, you’re having delicate conversations with your children about something that will greatly impact their lives while you yourself are in a very vulnerable emotional state. It’s very easy to make a mistake under those circumstances. Take a look at what you need to know about talking to your children about divorce.
Reassure Your Children That They Are Safe
Children need to feel safe and secure. They want to know that they’re not in any danger and that their basic needs, like food, clothing, and shelter, will continue to be taken care of. This may be particularly important in cases of divorce that involve abuse, either of one spouse or of the children themselves. But even when abuse isn’t part of the equation, children may have concerns about their safety in the event of a divorce. They may worry that one parent won’t be able to afford to keep them in their home or buy them food.
So the first thing that your children need to hear from you is that you’re going to continue to protect them and take care of them. They need to know that they don’t have to worry about money or shelter and that no one is going to hurt them or abandon them. This is all the more important if you have your own concerns about security and safety. Children pick up on more than their parents often think they do, so if you’re worried about your financial future or physical safety, the odds are good that your child is aware of those worries on some level. Make sure that they know that you’re taking care of the adult problems and that they can trust you to look out for them. Your child will be more easily able to absorb other information about the divorce if they’re first reassured that they will be safe.
Make it Clear That They Aren’t to Blame
At certain ages, it’s very common for children to blame themselves for their parents’ problems, and that extends to divorce. Your child may worry that their behavior or the stress of taking care of them is what drove you and their other parent apart. They may feel that it’s their responsibility to fix your relationship. Misplaced guilt over their parents’ divorce can have serious negative effects on a child.
Make it very clear to your child that the divorce has nothing to do with them – that nothing they did or said could have caused the divorce, and that there’s nothing they can do or should be doing to fix the marriage. Explain that the problem is between you and your partner and no one else.
Arguments about some aspect of childrearing are common among parents who have marital problems, and children who hear these types of arguments may not be easily convinced that they’re not somehow at fault for their parents’ divorce. You may need to have this conversation more than once.
Present a Unified Front if Possible
In most cases, it’s best if one parent isn’t solely responsible for breaking the news of an impending divorce to the children. Your child will most likely have questions and concerns for both parents, so it can help if the two of you can speak to them together.
This is the time to tell your child that while many things will be changing, some important things will not change. Explain that while the two of you may have many disagreements and can’t live together happily anymore, you both still love them and that you’ll both continue to be involved in their lives. Reassure them that while the family may be changing, they won’t be losing a parent.
Of course, this can be tricky in some cases. While you want to reassure your child, you also don’t want to lie to them. If there’s some reason why one parent will not continue to be involved in your child’s life – if there’s been abuse, for example, or if one parent has abandoned the family, you’ll need to be gentle but honest about the way things have changed. In that case, make sure to explain that the problem lies not with the child, but with the parent who has chosen to behave badly.
Encourage Your Child to Share Their Feelings
A discussion about an impending divorce with your children shouldn’t be a one-way conversation. Encourage your child to ask questions and be honest about their concerns. Listen to what your child has to say without interrupting. Validate their feelings. Let them know it’s OK to be angry, sad, confused, or have any other emotions, and that you’ll be there to help them understand and deal with those feelings. Offer comfort in the way that’s most comfortable for your individual child. The type of comfort that a child prefers may depend on several factors including age and temperament. Some may want hugs while others may want some space to work through their feelings privately first.
Keep in mind that a divorce is a big subject, and your child may be too overwhelmed to have much to say or ask at first. Make it clear that you’re available and willing to talk more about what divorce will mean for your family and how they feel about it whenever they’re ready, and then follow through – make sure that when your child is ready to talk, you take the time to do so. Don’t assume that one conversation is enough – check in with your child periodically to see how they’re coping and adjusting.
Divorce is a big and complicated thing to deal with, especially when you have children. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you handle the legal aspects of your divorce so that you have the time and energy to focus on the practical and emotional impacts of divorce on yourself and your children