One of the most delicate aspects of getting divorced is breaking the news to your children. This is a very important event, as it is your first opportunity to set the tone for how your children will experience your separation. The explicit and implicit messages that you convey at this time are critical to your children’s emotional well-being and their future relationship with both their parents. Here is what I suggest:
Create a United Front – Agree upon a unified “divorce story” with your spouse and tell your children together about the decision to separate. Deliberate beforehand and choose your words carefully. Keep the narrative as honest as possible, while at the same time protecting them from too much detail or hurtful information. For example, “Mommy and Daddy want to stop fighting so much” or “We think we can be happier people and better parents if we live in separate houses” are two explanations.
Let them know attempts have been made to preserve the relationship. Emphasize that they are not to blame, and that they did not cause the divorce or conflict. And tell them there is nothing they can do to prevent the divorce or to get you back together.
Reassure them that you two are still working together for their overall well-being. Convey to them that you are still a cohesive parenting unit. Set the stage so your children don’t start playing one parent off the other. Don’t create a situation that will undermine one parent’s authority and make it more difficult to co-parent in the future.
Manage Your Feelings – It is important not to expose them to, or saddle them with, the feelings of turmoil, anger, pain, betrayal, abandonment, and anxiety that you might be experiencing. Explain that both parents have made the decision to divorce. Assigning blame to one parent will actually harm your children. While it may feel cathartic to demonize your spouse for breaking up the family, forcing your children to judge or choose sides takes a toll on their well-being. Allow your children to continue loving the other parent without having to feel disloyal to either of you. Otherwise, your children will feel they need to choose sides, thereby creating either an uncomfortable disconnection from, or alignment with, the “bad” parent. The idea that they have “betrayed” one parent can create feelings of anxiety. And identifying with the parent who has been labeled as “bad” can cause self-esteem issues (e.g., “I see myself in Dad. Dad is bad. Therefore, I must be bad too.”;). Reassure them that it is OK to have a relationship with the other parent and that you both will continue to have a close relationship with them.
Address Logistics – A sense of continuity is important to children. Kids will usually want to know how much of their lives will change. Take the time to address the logistics of the separation. What will happen with school? Will they continue to be able to see their friends? What will happen with their room, clothes, and toys? Tell them specifically how they will be maintaining their relationship with both parents (when will they be with you, and when with your spouse). The younger the children, the more helpful it will be to create prominently displayed charts so that they can set their expectations and feel in control of the schedule.
Be Attuned to Their Feelings – Even grown children will need you to be emotionally present to allay their fears and empathize with their concerns. Have this be a foundational moment where you are able to hold and validate your children’s feelings. I have written in detail about how to elicit and respond to your children’s emotions in my therapy blog [click here]. The crux of this skill is to listen, ask a lot of curious questions, and don’t convince your child out of their emotions (even if they are sad and you want to console them). While there is a place for reassurances, also make the time to simply allow them to explore, articulate, and process their feelings.
Follow Their Lead – While I advise that you follow the outline above, ultimately let your children set the pace for what they want to hear and talk about. Some will be relieved, and others will be devastated. Some will be concerned with the logistics, and others caught up in the emotions. Some will want to process this information at length, and others will want to come back and address it in manageable bite-sizes. There is no wrong or right way for the children to react. Your job is to remain responsive to where your child is emotionally and to what your child needs.
Keep the Conflict Away from Your Children - Studies show that divorce, per se, is not harmful to children’s emotional development. The mere fact that parents live in two separate domiciles and don’t see their children daily does not cause irrevocable harm. Rather, it is the prevalent discord between separating parents which exacts a toll on children and creates mental health and behavioral problems. When there is an absence of conflict, children tend to be incredibly resilient to the pain and challenges of divorce. So keep in mind when breaking the news of your divorce that, while your marriage is ending, your responsibility to collaborate with your ex-partner for your children’s well-being persists.
- "Conscious Uncoupling," by Katherine Woodward Thomas
- "Conscious Divorce: Ending Marriage with Integrity," by Susan Allison
- "Cooperative Parenting and Divorce: Shielding Your Child from Conflict," by Susan Boyan
- "Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce,” by Joan Kelley