How should I tell my children about the divorce, and when?
Telling your children about your plans to divorce can be one of the hardest parts of the process. However, the situation presents an opportunity to set the tone for the separation and how both parents are going to work together for the benefit of their children. To this end, parents need to put their own feelings aside and present as a united front, even if one parent wants the separation and the other does not. When parents tell the children together, there is only one story, which is easier for children to assimilate.
Tell the children that you are coming together as a family to discuss something very important. Tell them that you, together as parents, have something to tell them and that they need to listen first, but that there will be plenty of time to ask questions and for you to all talk together. Pick a time and place where everyone can come together with no distractions. The best time is usually on a Saturday so that the children have the full day plus Sunday to process the new information before returning to school on Monday. The weekend after telling the children is also an opportunity to show them that they will continue to be supported and loved by both parents and that everything is going to be okay.
Suggestions for making the process as positive as possible for your children:
- Start off by saying that you both love the children very much, and always will. Tell them that you will both always be there for them whenever they need or want you, but there are going to be “some changes in our family.”
- Acknowledge that sometimes parents can love each other, but not want to live together anymore. Say that you have had some problems, which have nothing to do with the kids, and that you’ve worked very hard to try to fix them. But, ultimately, you think everyone would be happier, in time, if Mom and Dad lived separately and the kids continued to be with Mom and Dad as much as possible. You should not share the specific problems of the marriage with your children. Those are adult issues. Children just need to know that there were problems, you tried hard to fix them but it didn’t work, and this is the “next best” plan for everyone.
- Talk about “separation” rather than “divorce.” The word is less scary and there will be plenty of time later for the children to learn and understand that the changes are going to be permanent.
- Throughout, you need to impart as much security as possible in your presentation. Your children need to know that you and your spouse have a plan, have thought things through, and are going to make things as nice as possible for them.
- If at all possible, the parent who is moving out should already have made new living arrangements so the children know where that parent will be, how to get in touch with that parent, and where they are going to go to stay when they’re with that parent.
- Parents should take turns speaking, so the children feel that they both are part of the presentation.
- Parents need to be caring with the children’s feelings throughout. Whatever emotion your children have, be it anger, sadness, or anxiety, they need to know that that emotion is “okay” and “natural” and not a problem. Parents cannot be defensive in response to strong emotions from their children. You need to acknowledge what the children are feeling, name or identify those feelings, and say you can see how the news would make them feel that way. Then go a step further and talk about how your “joint plan” will help the children to not feel angry, sad, or anxious over time.
- Emphasize that, although having their parents live in two different houses is a big change, you are going to try your best to make sure as many things as possible do not change for them.
- Talk about how the family living situation will be different, but state that you will all still always be a family.
- Be clear throughout that the separation has nothing to do with the children, that they neither caused it nor can they stop it.
- Finally, remember to apologize to your children. Acknowledge that this is hard and feels sad. Say something like, “We are both very sorry that, even though these problems are between us, they will mean some changes for you as well.” Reassure the children that you love them and always will, and want them to have a loving, supportive relationship with both of you.
David J. Glass is a former attorney who practiced family law with Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt & Klein in Los Angeles.