Putting your children first when you’re getting a divorce can seem like a tall order, especially if the breakup of your marriage is full of conflict. But remember, you’re the parent. You have a responsibility to your children to tell them about your divorce in as caring and as sensitive a manner as possible. You also have an obligation to provide them with all the love, attention, and support that they need throughout your divorce so that you can minimize any emotional trauma that they may experience. If you don’t, research shows that they may struggle as adults to lead happy, well-adjusted lives. Here are some suggestions that will help prepare all of you for this difficult discussion.
Break the News with Your Spouse
The best way to handle the situation is for you and your spouse to break the news about your divorce together to your children, even if you have to put your animosity toward each other aside for a while. By explaining your divorce together, you convey to your kids that, although your marriage may be ending, you can cooperate as their parents, that they still have a family — just a different kind of family — and that you both will remain actively involved in their lives. Such behavior is very calming and reassuring to them.
Before you tell your children about your divorce plans, taking the time to decide what you’re going to say to them is a good idea. Get your story straight so that you don’t contradict one another or send them conflicting messages. If you and your spouse need help deciding what to say to your children, talk things over with your religious advisor or schedule an appointment with a mental-health professional. If you and your spouse don’t plan on breaking the news about your divorce to your kids together, try to agree about which of you will tell them.
Find the Right Time to Talk with Your Children
Most of us tend to put off doing things that are unpleasant or that we’re nervous about doing. However, make sure that you tell them before anyone else does. They need to hear the news from you in your own words. And, in the same breath, you need to reassure them that you will always love them and take care of them.
The right time to talk with your children about the changes to come depends on their ages and on the circumstances of your divorce. For example, if your spouse announces that he or she has already filed for divorce and is moving out next week, you should tell your children about the split sooner, not later.
Dos and Don’ts
Do be honest with your children about why you’re getting divorced, but keep their ages in mind and avoid sharing the lurid details behind your split. Tell them as much as they need to know and no more. If you haven’t been able to hide the discord in your marriage, you may want to acknowledge what your children already know by saying something like, “We know that you’ve heard us fighting a lot, and here’s why…”
Don’t hide the fact that life is going to be different for everyone in the family because of your divorce. Prepare your kids for some of the changes to come. Reassure them that your divorce hasn’t and will not change your love for them and that you both will continue to be involved in their lives. But don’t promise them things you can’t deliver. Make sure that your reassurances and promises are more than hot air. Otherwise, your children will become distrustful of you and cynical about your reliability and honesty.
Do be very clear with your children that your divorce has absolutely nothing to do with them. Otherwise, they may feel somehow responsible for the divorce and assume that if only they had behaved better or gotten higher grades you wouldn’t be ending your marriage.
Do avoid angry or irritated facial gestures and body language, and don’t argue with your spouse in front of them. Such behavior contradicts the messages you want your kids to hear from you.
Don’t get emotional when you tell your children about your divorce. Watching a parent cry or get very upset can be frightening for children. Don’t add to their anxiety with histrionics and overly dramatic behavior. You’re likely to make them more concerned about your emotions than their own and, as a result, they may not let you know exactly what they’re feeling.
Decide Whether to Tell Your Children Individually or All Together
If your children are close in age and maturity, telling them all together has important benefits:
- It can help foster a “we’re all in this together” attitude among your children. That feeling can be a comfort and a source of strength to them.
- If all your children find out about your divorce at the same time, each of them knows exactly what his or her siblings know. This may not seem important to you but, if you tell each of your kids separately, they may worry that they don’t know what their siblings know or that you’re going to treat them differently than everyone else in the family.
If your children have significant disparities in their ages, maturity levels, or emotional needs, talk to your children individually about your divorce so you can tailor an appropriate message for each child and provide him or her with as much support and comfort as he or she may need after hearing your news. If you meet with your children separately, tell each child that you’re having a similar conversation with his or her siblings. Unless your children are very young, they’re probably going to talk with one another about what you’ve told them.
Calming their emotions
Telling your children about your divorce is apt to trigger a new flood of emotions inside of you, even if you thought that you had them under control. Be prepared to do whatever you need to do to deal with your own emotions because if you’re an emotional basket case, you’re not much help to your children and are likely to make them even more scared and worried than they already are.
Fielding their questions
After you tell your children about your divorce plans, give them an opportunity to ask questions. For example, depending on their ages, they may want to know
- Where will they live?
- Will they still go to the same school?
- Will you and your spouse still live in the same town?
- Will they spend time with each of you?
- Will you continue to coach their soccer or little-league team?
- Can they continue their music or dance lessons?
- How will you share parenting responsibilities?
- Can they still go to camp next summer?
- Will there be enough money?
- Where will their dog or cat live?
Answer your children’s questions clearly, calmly, and honestly. If they ask you something that you can’t answer, admit that you don’t know or that it’s too soon to tell. When appropriate, tell them that you will give them an answer by a certain date or as soon as you can. If your children don’t ask direct questions, you may be able to intuit their thoughts through their behavior and actions or by reading between the lines when they talk to you.
Your younger children may have a hard time grasping the concept of divorce and realizing that you and your spouse will always continue to love them and care for them. They may ask you the same questions over and over, which can really tax your patience. Understand that right now they need constant reassurance.
And don’t be surprised if your children don’t ask you many questions at first. Learning that you’re getting a divorce may come as quite a shock to them, even if they’re aware that you and your spouse were having marital problems and even if they have plenty of friends with divorced parents. They may need to let the news sink in before they’re ready to ask you questions.
Be prepared for your children’s initial reactions
After your children find out about your divorce plans, they may begin to feel isolated and cut off from their friends. They may feel as though they’re the only children whose parents ever got divorced and may be embarrassed about what’s happening to them. On the other hand, if you and your spouse fought openly and often during your marriage or if violence or substance abuse colored your relationship, your divorce may be a relief to your children and it may represent a positive change in their lives.
If your children are having trouble coping with the news of your divorce, all you may need to turn their frowns into smiles is to cuddle them more and give them a little extra attention. But sometimes it’s not that simple. When your children need more than what you can give them, consider involving a school counselor, mental-health professional, social worker, relative, or another adult who’s especially close to your children. Participating in a support group may also be helpful to your older children.
Tell your children’s teachers, babysitters, other caregivers, the parents of their close friends, and any other adults who they see regularly about your divorce plans. Your heads-up will help them stay attuned to any significant changes in the ways your children behave. Ask these adults to keep you informed of any changes.
Another option is to contact your state’s family law court, your divorce attorney, mental health professional, or a social worker who works with children and families to find out about any public or private resources (such as classes, workshops, and support groups) that may be available in your area to help your kids cope with your divorce. Some of these same resources may also offer counseling for divorcing parents.
What your kids may be fearing (and not telling you)
During and after their parents’ divorce, children (especially the younger ones) often become fearful that terrible things will happen to them or believe that they’re responsible for the breakup of their parents’ marriage. Some of the most common fears and misconceptions kids have about divorce include:
- The parent I no longer live with will leave me forever.
- My parents’ divorce is my fault.
- If I am really good, my parents will get back together.
- I have to choose between my parents. I can’t have a relationship with both of them after they’re divorced.
- My mother’s or father’s new significant other will replace my real parent.
- My stepbrother or stepsister is going to replace me.
Understanding the thoughts that may be going through your children’s minds can keep you alert to any signs that your kids are having trouble coping with your divorce.
There are many books about divorce for children of all ages that can help your children cope. If your kids act uninterested in the books when you first bring them home, leave them in a place where they can see them and, when they’re ready, they may start reading the books. Also, before you give the books to your children, you may want to read them to gain insight into what your kids feel like right now. That insight can help you do a better job of parenting them during your divorce.
- Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families by Marc Brown and Laurence Krasny Brown (Little, Brown & Co.)
Dinosaur characters help convey the message that everything will be “okay” for little ones. This book deals with children’s common concerns and questions and provides comfort and reassurance.
- Mama and Daddy Bear’s Divorce by Cornelia Spelman (Albert Whitman & Company)
Children read along with Dinah bear as she deals with her feelings of sadness and fear about her parents’ divorce and learns that both parents will still be there for her, even after divorce. A special note to parents outlines children’s typical concerns.
- I Don’t Want to Talk About It: A Story About Divorce for Young Children by Jeanie Franz Ransom (Magination Press)
Children will relate to the narrator of this book, whose parents have just told her they are getting a divorce. The full range of emotions children experience is explored through metaphors of animals that the little girl uses to express her feelings. A two-page message to parents provides tips that can help in dealing with a young child’s reaction to the news about the divorce.
Preteens and Teens
- The Divorce Helpbook by Teens by Cynthia MacGregor (Impact Publishers):
This book talks to teens about divorce; discusses the emotions they’re feeling; and addresses many of the difficult issues they may be thinking about, such as how to deal with the sadness and depression they feel, how to tell one parent that they don’t want to spend as much time with him or her, and what to do if their parents are trying to make them go-betweens.
- How It Feels When Parents Divorce by Jill Krementz (Knopf):
This book can be helpful to teens as well as younger children. It shares the experiences and feelings of children whose parents have gone through a divorce. The book helps children understand that the emotions they may be feeling are normal and that other children of divorce have had to deal with many of the very same changes that they’re facing now.
- My Parents Are Divorced, Too: A Book for Kids by Kids by Jan Blackstone-Ford, Annie Ford, Melanie Ford, and Steven Ford (Magination Press):
Written by kids for kids, this book takes on the toughest questions your older kids (ages 8 to 12 year, approximately) may have about your divorce.
John Ventura is a bestselling author, attorney, and a national authority on consumer financial and legal problems. Mary Reed is the founder of Mary Reed Public Relations. This answer has been excerpted from their book Divorce for Dummies (Second Edition, Wiley Publishing, @ 2005). This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The book is available at Amazon.com or www.wiley.com.