Telling children about divorce is one of the most difficult conversations parents will ever have. Most children want their parents to stop fighting and stay together, so telling them about divorce is tough. Children remember the “divorce talk” all of their lives. There is no perfect way to break the news but here’s tips on how to proceed.
Agree on the message.
Talk to your spouse ahead of time and develop a simple message that explains what is happening. Make certain you are going to divorce before talking to them. Don’t blame each other; deliver the speech calmly. Use “we” in discussing the divorce and avoid bitterness. Keep the message simple and neutral.
Include the entire family.
If possible, both of you need to talk to all of your children at the same time and follow up about each child’s concerns. Pick a quiet time when nothing is happening – a weekend is best. Expect additional questions later.
Write a script.
This is such an important conversation; you need to get it right. Plan the major points you want to make and outline them. Tell your children you love them, the divorce is not their fault, both mommy and daddy will be in their lives, and you will try to minimize disruption if possible.
Expect different reactions.
Children will react differently. Some may be relieved that the fighting may stop, while others may be frightened or angry that things are going to change. Younger children will generally be more egocentric while older children will understand more about the divorce. Children love routines, so make as few changes as possible. Be honest about how the divorce is going to affect them.
Alert teachers and others.
Tell their teachers, doctors and friends’ parents about the divorce so they will be prepared. Say you want them to be sensitive and supportive of your children but request they don’t ask your children about the divorce.
Tell children what’s going to happen.
Tell the children about your plan for the divorce. Where is daddy going to live, will they have to move, what about their friends, and anything else they ask about. Try to make them comfortable. Ask them about their concerns and address questions honestly.
Allow the children to have feelings.
Don’t be surprised by any reaction you see. Some children will be angry, others relaxed; some will be sad and others quiet. Invite them to discuss their feelings when they have processed the news.
Tell them it will work out.
Explain to your children that change is difficult and it takes time to adjust. Assure them of your love and protection. Most of all, both parents need to act like adults, because your children will be watching and wondering if you can take care of them. Let them see you are competent.
Ask for help if needed.
Seek professional help for yourself if you are feeling overwhelmed by the divorce, and for your children if they seem depressed, are acting out or their grades drop. You may want to find a counselor who can talk with you and your children together or treat you individually.
Consider the age of each child.
Children who are five years of age or younger are dependent on their parents and have little ability to understand what will happen next. For these children, telling them you are divorcing and you love them should be sufficient. Look for signs of fear, anger, regression or emotional instability.
Children between six and ten years of age begin to think more independently and can discuss feelings. However, they still have limited abilities to understand divorce. They often see events in black and white and may blame one parent. They need to understand that the decision to divorce was not their fault.
Older children have greater capacity to understand divorce. They also want to be more independent and will develop relationships outside the family. Try to maintain regular routines and disrupt their lives as little as possible.
Three things help children survive the trauma of divorce:
- maintaining a strong relationship with both parents;
- receiving adequate parenting; and,
- minimal exposure to conflict.
Losing a parent relationship may happen if one parent drifts away or is undermined by the other parent. Maintain good parenting skills by taking a parenting class every year or so.
Avoiding conflict is best done by entering the collaborative divorce process and avoiding litigation.
Written by: Harry Munsinger, J.D., Ph.D.
Harry practices collaborative and estate law in San Antonio. He has over twenty years experience resolving disputes involving divorce, probate, wills, and trusts. Harry was an adjunct law professor at the University of Texas and St. Mary’s University. He has published several textbooks and over forty psychological and legal articles. Harry has been a forensic psychology expert, a licensed psychologist and a litigator.