Act quickly and compassionately
Telling children about divorce is hard. The best way to tell your child you're getting a divorce is to do so as soon as possible after you have made up your mind to divorce or separate.
Among the challenges of parenting, telling children divorce is on the horizon can be one of the hardest. And yet that conversation with the child is only the first step in preparing them for the divorce.
If you are a parent facing this situation, take advantage of some tips from professionals who are involved with children's mental and emotional health.
You should talk to your child as soon as possible after you have made up your mind to separate or divorce and there's no turning back. It's important for your child to hear of the decision from their parents instead of from someone else.
Plan to break the news during a day that you typically spend together as a family — not at the beginning of a school day and not at bedtime. Avoid holidays, birthdays, and public places when deciding on the time and setting for the conversation.
Make it a joint effort
Both you and your child's other parent should decide together how you will inform your child. If at all possible, both parents should break the news together.
Avoid blaming the other parent
Figuring out what to say also plays into your joint effort. When you create the narrative that supports your child in understanding why the divorce is happening, it's best for you both to speak in terms of "we": "We both want to stop fighting so much" or "we are not happy together, and we can't seem to resolve our differences."
No matter how much you may want your child to know "the truth," letting them know you blame the other parent leaves the child caught in the middle. The plain facts of your divorce are less critical at this point. Support and reassurance for the child should be your priority.
Both of you should strive to protect your child’s feelings by not shouting at each other during this conversation. Rehearse what you will calmly tell your child. Work out your anger with a counselor instead.
Let your child know what will change and what will remain the same
Your child will wonder who they’ll live with and where. If they’re staying put, they’ll want to know which of you is leaving and how they’ll communicate with that parent. Make them aware of any new schedules you’ve worked out with your soon-to-be ex.
Children will want to know if everyday concerns such as school, friendships, and activities will continue for them as before. Provide them with any definite assurances you can. But be honest about what you don’t know.
It also puts your child more at ease if you stay consistent with earlier joint decisions you made with them in mind. Don't go back on promises or commitments you've made to them.
Most importantly, let your child know that your love for them will never change just because your marriage is ending. Remind them that you will only separate from their other parent but never from them.
Allow your child to process their emotions
Children react in a variety of ways to news of their parents' divorce. Your child may get angry and express resentment toward one or both parents, and this is completely normal.
When your child is upset by your divorce announcement, one or more of the following strategies may help:
- Encourage them to be honest about their feelings, and take them seriously.
- Help them put their feelings into words.
- Try to get ahead of their feelings — saying something like, “We know this is making you sad” — to invite them to vent.
- Let them take the time they need to express themselves.
It is even common for a child to feel guilty about your divorce news and to ponder what they might have done wrong. Be prepared to assure them that the divorce is not their fault.
This is also the time to distinguish between your feelings toward your spouse and their parenting skills. While they may not be the perfect partner, they may be an excellent parent to your child. Don’t diminish them in front of your child.
Be your child’s pillar of support
After you break the news to your child, it’s important to continue being sensitive to their negative emotions as well as your own. You can also support their mental and emotional health by following these suggestions:
- Ask them what they think can make them feel better. It may be as simple as relaxing together or taking a stroll.
- Maintain privacy when discussing your divorce with friends and family.
- Separate your almost ex’s parenting history from your marital history. Don’t diminish the other parent within earshot of your child.
- Be sure they understand your decision is final, though they may dream of their parents’ reuniting.