Once the decision to divorce has been made, the daunting task of how to tell your children remains. Children will respond differently to the news depending on their age and the relationship they have with both parents. While you should not anticipate a particular response from them, you should spend some time preparing to have this important conversation with your children.
Set the Stage
Research shows that children of divorce usually have a very vivid memory of the moment they were told their parents were getting a divorce, even decades after the occurrence. This research alone shows how significant that moment will be in your child’s life. It is important that you prepare yourself for this conversation, as it can be an emotional discussion for the parent as well as the child.
It is often helpful if both parents are present for the conversation so that your children see the separation as a mutual decision made by parents who want what’s best for them. Even if the decision to divorce was painfully one-sided, setting the precedent for a unified parental team, even after separation, will help a child cope.
Honesty & Age-Appropriate Explanations
The way you approach the subject of divorce depends greatly on your children’s age, maturity level, and temperament, but the most important message to convey is that it is not their fault. The details you choose to share with your children will vary depending on the circumstances and their level of understanding. However, honesty is a critical component of every discussion you have with them. That doesn’t mean you have to explain extramarital infidelity or complicated legal matters. Instead, you can tell your children that you and your spouse no longer agree on important things and find separation the best solution.
Most children will immediately wonder how this change will affect their daily lives. You can anticipate some of the questions they may have by initially explaining what changes you and your spouse have worked out to facilitate the transition. Taking the initiative to explain what will occur also lets your children know that it is not a matter for discussion, but a change that everyone will have to adapt to.
Listen & Validate
Children may express a range of emotions in response to the news, ranging from sadness or anger to relief or shock. Reassure your children that if they ever have questions, you are there to answer them. Acknowledge that the transition may be difficult. If you notice their behavior start to change, try to help them find words to describe their complicated emotions. Say things like, “You seem sad. Do you feel sad because you miss your mother?” Practice reflective listening and do your best to validate your children’s emotions as legitimate and reasonable.
Find Your Own Support System
Especially if you have older children, the temptation may arise to turn to your kids for emotional support through this difficult time. They may be offering genuine help, but they also need to learn how to cope in their own way. If you need emotional support, turn to your close friends or professional counselors rather than your children. Do your best to keep legal, private, or complicated personal matters between you and your spouse.
Despite the emotional difficulty of divorce, it is important that you stay mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy so that you can provide and care for your children in the ways they need. Keep routines consistent even when you are tired and stressed. Children will need as much consistency and regularity as possible, now more than ever.
The most important thing you can do is show your children unconditional love through your words and actions. Children cannot be spoiled by too much affection and their need to feel loved is an important part of their development. While your divorce will have a significant impact on you, your spouse, and your children equally, do your best to help your children adjust to these changes. If your children still have difficulty adapting some time after the divorce is final, you may consider revising your child custody agreement to best meet their needs.