Guide to Telling Your Children About Divorce
One of the hardest things parents may have to do is to tell their children they are divorcing. While very young children may not really understand what is happening, the majority of children often feel as though the divorce is their fault. Teens, however, are more likely to hold their feelings inside, sometimes acting on the surface as though it doesn’t matter one way or the other to them. Whatever the age of your children, how and when you tell them about an impending divorce is crucial. The following tips can help you tell your children about your divorce in the best way possible, under the circumstances.
Tips for Telling Your Children About Your Impending Divorce
- Only share appropriate details regarding your divorce with the children. Your children do not need to know that there was infidelity on the part of one of their parents, or that Daddy has a gambling problem. No matter how you feel about your spouse, do your children the courtesy of not bad-mouthing him or her. If possible, and appropriate, both parents should tell the children together, saying only what the children need to know in an honest and sincere manner. Right now, what the children most need to know is how this will impact their lives—will they have to change schools, will they be moving, who will they live with, and when will they see the other parent. You may not know the answers to all these questions, but do your best to reassure the children that their lives will be disrupted as little as humanly possible.
- Be as unified as possible when talking to your children. Nothing is more confusing to children than to receive conflicting messages from the two people they trust most in this world. Even if you and your spouse vehemently disagree on parenting issues, keep the focus on the children, and send clear, similar messages about the impending divorce and the changes which will occur.
- No matter how you feel about your spouse, make a pact with him or her that you will never play the “blame game” in front of the children. In other words, if either or both of you have bitter feelings about the other, keep it to yourself, and only use neutral language when talking about your ex to the children. Try as hard as you can to look at your ex not as your ex, but only as your children’s other parent, whom they love and need in their life.
- Make sure the children know the divorce is in no way their fault. Use vague language like “We have grown apart as a couple,” which assigns blame to no one. The fact is, the divorce is not the fault of the children, and it is extremely important they know this.
- Unless you are absolutely certain about the divorce—don’t tell the children until you are. Suppose you and your spouse have a huge argument and the “D” word is thrown about. The next morning you tell your children that their parents are divorcing, then your spouse comes home from work with flowers and an apology, and you realize you might have spoken too soon. Waiting until you have a signed divorce agreement in place, as well as a custody agreement, is the best course of action when possible. When those documents are in place, you will have specific details about the future to share with your children.
- Choose the time wisely to tell the children. Don’t tell the children you are divorcing after a bitter argument while you are both still angry. Choose a time when both of you can focus on being parents rather than being spouses. Before you tell the children, try and have a support system in place for them by telling their teacher and/or guidance counselor, as well as a family member they trust and can talk to. Further, if a child has an important event coming up, such as a huge test, graduation, etc., wait until after the event when possible.
- As much as you are able, provide a consistent schedule for the children during this difficult time. Give the children solid information about where they will live, where they will go to school, and when they will see each parent, then stick to that information. Don’t promise the children things which you know will never happen just to make them—and you—feel better in the moment.
- Always remember your children are watching you, and are picking up on your feelings. This means if you are obviously angry/bitter/anxious/stressed, in an out-of-control manner, you can expect to see those emotions mirrored back at you from your children. Tell yourself as many times as you have to that you need to be a parent first, and that your children need you to be calm and reassuring.
- Tell your children over and over that there is no wrong way for them to feel. Their feelings are real and valid, and they are allowed to feel every emotion, whether those emotions are sad, angry, hurt or happy—all in the space of an hour. Some children may feel as though they cannot be happy about anything in their life because their parents are unhappy. Others may feel that showing they are sad, angry or hurt will only add another burden to their parents. Let them know that they can express any feeling they have to you, and it will be okay.
- When appropriate or necessary, make sure your children know there is outside help available. If you see your child spiraling into a deep depression, letting their anger get out of control, or being self-destructive, you need to immediately seek health from a qualified mental health professional. Even if your child’s behavior has not reached a level you consider serious, let them know you are okay with them talking to a therapist, a support group, a trusted family friend or relative or a clergyman if they want to.
- Again and again, tell your children that both parents love them and that just because their parents will no longer be living together, that does not mean the parental love has diminished in any way.
- Remind your children frequently that your divorce is just that—your divorce—and it in no way defines them. Tell your children that your divorce does not change the person they were before the divorce as far as their hopes and dreams for the future.
- Remind your children also that you are the adults and that it is not their job to “fix” your relationship or your marriage.
- Avoid at all costs attempting to gather information about your ex through the children.
- Help your children to understand that just because your marriage did not work out, that is not a reflection on the entire institution of marriage. Tell them that someday they will fall in love and may want to get married, and that the breakdown of their parents’ marriage should not influence those future decisions.
Things You Should Never Tell Your Children About the Divorce
Just as there are plenty of things you should tell your children about your divorce, there are also some things that you should never say, no matter how tempting. The things you should never say to your children during a divorce include:
- Try not to tell your children that their parents still love one another. If you have ever been on the receiving end of “I love you but I’m not in love with you,” then you know how difficult it can be to resolve that statement in your heart. Telling your children you still love your ex, can lead them to believe you are getting back together. Avoid raising false hopes by saying you love your ex, rather simply say that you both love the children and will do everything in your power to work together for the benefit of the children. This might also be the time to enforce the fact that while spouses can fall out of love, parents never stop loving their children.
- Never tell the children you are simply “trying a separation”—unless you really are. Some parents feel they need to ease the children into the divorce in stages, but in reality, the news of a divorce is akin to ripping a band-aid off quickly in order to avoid drawing out the pain.
- Never try to spin the divorce as a “good thing.” Even if the divorce actually is a good thing for you, telling your children something like “Hey, it will be great—you’ll finally get to have that kitten dad wouldn’t let you have,” only confuses the children, making them feel as though they must act happy about the new kitten when they are actually very sad about the divorce.
- If you are sad about the divorce, don’t pretend to be happy or brave about the issue. While you don’t need to fall apart while telling your children about the divorce, neither do you have to be stoic. You are having a sad conversation about a change in your lives, and it is okay to be sad.
How Children of Different Ages May Respond
Much of how you tell your children about the divorce will be dictated by their ages at the time, as well as what you know about their individual personalities. Children from birth to age two have no idea how to process information regarding a divorce. The best thing you can do for children of this age is to provide love, consistency and routine. The divorce conversation can come when the children are older. Toddlers and preschoolers will primarily concentrate on how the divorce will affect them. You need to be clear with children in this age range that everyone will be okay, then tell them in simple language how the divorce will alter their daily lives—if, in fact, it will.
For early elementary children who have a better grasp of what a divorce really is, and are able to express their emotions, you will likely need to answer questions. Just as for younger children, you need to communicate a calm, safe, confident presence, telling them how things will change, but that the love their parents have for them will never change. Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers were probably aware of their parent’s problems long before the divorce, therefore may not be all that surprised when told of the divorce. Even so, even the most grown-up teenager is still a child when it comes to his or her parents, and needs reassurance about the future.
The Changes Brought On by Your Divorce
As a concerned parent, there are many things you can do during your divorce to protect your children and prevent them from ending up as a statistic. Remember that as stressful as your divorce may be for you, it is equally stressful for your children. Few children are happy about their parent’s divorce, unless the marriage was full of conflict and anger. Divorce can lead to economic hardships, lost contact with one parent and even more conflict between the parents.
How well your children come through this transition has much to do with whether you keep your home calm, or it is in a constant state of chaos. You must be patient and reassuring with your children in order to minimize any tension they feel about their new circumstances. If you will have to move following the divorce, this sort of stability is even more important. The children may be leaving friends, family, school and their home as well as being separated from one parent. This is a huge change in their lives, and what they need most is a listening ear and plenty of love to learn to cope with these new circumstances. Speaking to an experienced Florida DUI attorney can help you navigate your divorce with the least amount of stress possible.