Navigating divorce is difficult when it’s between two partners. Adding kids into the mix just makes the entire process more complicated and stressful. As you and your spouse handle the dissolution, you’ll face many challenges regarding child custody, support, scheduling, and more. One of the first major obstacles you’ll encounter is telling the children about the divorce.
The thought of this conversation likely elicits many questions: When do you bring it up? How do you approach the idea? Do both parents have the talk together, or one at a time? How will the children react? How do you cope with their reactions?
Before you get too crazy with all the self-questioning, sit back and take a deep breath. You can do this. It won’t be an easy conversation, but it is necessary.
So, when should you tell your children you’re getting a divorce? Although the ultimate answer is up to you, it’s best to inform your children as soon as you and your partner decide to officially split. If you’re planning on filing for divorce in the next two to three months, have the conversation. Don’t wait until the week before one of you moves out or the custody agreement goes into effect. According to an article specifically addressing this common question on the family-focused mental health nonprofit Child Mind Institute: “Kids are incredibly intuitive, so even though you think they might not know about this, they could already have an idea.”
It’s also important to note that the conversation should be a joint effort, meaning one spouse should not have it without the other. Schedule a time and place where both parties can be present to break the news.
There are specific times you should not have the divorce conversation. Don’t tell your kids around the holidays or their birthdays—this will just ruin the special memory-making moments for them. Wait until afterward. It’s also best to steer clear of the chat at bedtime. The divorce talk is likely a long one, and you’ll want to ensure your children have time to process it during the day.
Once you and your soon-to-be ex plan a date and time, it’s important you both understand how to relay the announcement. First, discuss what you both intend to say. If you and your spouse can’t agree or have a contemptuous relationship, it’s a good idea to get a mediator, divorce coach, or family counselor involved.
During this discussion, develop a narrative that does not place blame on one person. Although you may want your children to know the truth, according to an article titled “How to Tell Your kids You’re Getting a Separation or Divorce” on psychology-based media organization Psychology Today, it is “less important than providing the support and reassurance that your children need.” Use “we” when explaining the decision to split and reason behind it. Don’t go into detail about affairs or other personal reasons. Speak about the divorce in a general manner. The Psychology Today piece advises options such as: “We hoped this would never happen but we can’t seem to fix our relationship.” “We both want different things in our lives.” “We like each other and want to be friends, but we don’t love each other anymore.”
After answering the “why” questions, you’ll need to explain how the family dynamic will change. If you’ve discussed scheduling, explain the parenting plan: which parent will be moving out, when the kids will be with each parent, or which holidays they’ll spend together. If you don’t have the answers yet, be honest.
Throughout the entire discussion, it’s crucial you reassure your children the divorce is not their fault. It’s also important you assure them that some things will remain the same, despite the divorce. In some cases, this may simply be your love for them. In others, it may be school, sports, or friends. No matter how you reassure your children, avoid making promises you can’t keep. Don’t tell them they’ll never have to move or change schools. Don’t tell them it won’t be a hard transition. Explain that you will get through it together.
When preparing for the discussion, brace yourself for a variety of potential reactions. Fear, anger, anxiety, sadness, and irritability are all normal emotions to the news of parental divorce. Parental magazine Today’s Parent discusses how every age group responds to divorce in its 2018 article “How to Tell Kids About Divorce: An Age-by-Age Guide.”
Up through age 0 to 5, children can be clingy, whiny, or generally irritable. Some preschoolers may stop sleeping through the night or “lose ground on their development,” states the piece. It’s recommended to keep up consistent care and provide simple explanations.
Children ages 6 to 11 “display more clear-cut signs of missing the absent parent,” the article continues, and are likely to dream of helping their parents reconcile. It’s suggested you maintain stable routines and make attempts at discussing their feelings on the subject.
When kids enter the teenage range of 12 to 14, it can be tough to decipher which anxious and angry feelings are related to the divorce. Keep open communication between you and your children throughout the process. If you notice a significant negative shift in their behavior after dropping the news, it may be time to set up an appointment with a family counselor or psychologist specializing in divorce.
If you need assistance explaining your divorce to your children, or planning the process, find a divorce expert on DivorceForce today. As the #1 online directory of divorce professionals, DivorceForce has an expert for every aspect of divorce: finance, real estate, legal, and mental health.
Gregory C. Frank is the CEO and Founder of DivorceForce.