Telling children about divorce is one of the most difficult aspects of the divorce process. Parents dread these conversations because of the potential impact they think it will have on the kids. While every kid will have their own reaction, there are some things that you can do to be prepared for questions that you may receive from them.
This is the key principle for answering your child’s questions: respond honestly taking into account the age and developmental level of your child. Children do not need to know adult information (affairs, money issues), they simply need to know that, “We had grown up problems." Add in, "You didn’t cause these problems and you could not have done anything differently because this was between us.”
You need to reassure your children that both of you still love them and that will not change.
Once you say something, it is out there, so don’t say things out of anger that you will regret later. This is harder than it sounds. Perhaps you feel betrayed by your spouse’s affair and you want the kids to know it was his fault. This is too much information for a child or adolescent to process and will damage relationships. We know children weather divorce best when they have a positive relationship with both parents. Don’t undermine your long-term goal because of your anger in the moment.
Although each family’s situation is unique, there are some common questions that most children ask when being told of their parents’ impending divorce. Consider preparing answers to these three frequently-asked questions since the likelihood of your children’s asking them is high.
1. Why are you getting divorced? This goes back to the guideline of being honest and age appropriate. You can acknowledge things that your children might have noticed. “Mom and I fight a lot and realize that we can’t live together in a healthy way.” Don’t provide specifics about the details of your fights, rather emphasize that they are adult problems.
2. Is the divorce my fault? This may not be asked directly or may be asked slightly differently such as “Could I have fixed this?”, but this is a deeply held fear for many children of divorce. This fear may show itself as your child attempting to be overly well-behaved or trying to bring the two of you together in hopes of undoing the divorce. Be very clear and repeat to your kids that the divorce isn’t something they caused (or could have fixed). Reassure your children that even though you are divorcing, you will both still love them and spend time with them.
3. What’s going to happen now? Kids are very worried about how a divorce will impact them. Offering them honest and specific responses will help overcome these concerns. For example: “You will continue to go to the same school.” If you don’t know an answer, be honest. “I don’t know yet if we will keep this house, but we will tell you as soon as we know.”
Don’t promise things you can’t guarantee because you feel guilty. For example, if the kids are in private school and you aren’t sure if you will be able to afford it, don’t promise it. “You will live in two different houses, but you will continue to spend time with both of us.” Different doesn’t mean bad, it means different. Kids will take emotional cues from both of you, so be mindful of the nonverbal communication cues as well as the words.
Using an Alternative Dispute Resolution process for divorce – such as mediation or collaborative divorce – will help maintain or develop healthy communication with your spouse, which will allow you to set the stage for co-parenting in a positive manner. This will come through in telling children about divorce. Being able to communicate with each other about how you want to answer your children's questions will show that you can continue to work together even if you are divorcing.