10 Tips on How to Talk to Your Children about Divorce

10 Tips on How to Talk to Your Children about Divorce

No parent wants to hurt their children. It is difficult for parents to tell their children about the divorce because the conversation will be hard, hurtful, and perhaps even traumatic. It will become a conversation etched in time; a moment when their world suddenly changed. There is no way to remove the life shaking disruption that breaking the news of your divorce will have on your children. But here are some methods that will minimize the trauma and maintain a sae place for healing when it becomes possible.

1. Do not keep the divorce a secret.

This is tempting because you know it will hurt them, and you are a good parent who does not want to hurt their child. But just like cleaning your child’s cut, it will hurt a lot more later if not treated right from the beginning. Don’t try to hide the divorce, and don’t wait until the last minute to spring it on them. However, you should wait to tell your children about the divorce only when it is a sure thing and the changes are coming (give them at least a few weeks before any significant changes in the family occur.). If there is a reasonable possibility of reconciliation, you might consider waiting to break the news to your children.

2. Tell your children with the other parent (if possible).

Determining whether to be together when breaking the news can be very tricky. The worst scenario for your children would be for this tender conversation to morph into a fight between you and your spouse. However, the ideal scenario is that you can control your bitterness and your spouse can control theirs, and you both can be present to reassure your children that you both love them. Make it happen if you think you can, otherwise don’t.

If you get half way into the conversation and it starts to turn into a fight, please, please, please, you have got to be the parent. Tell your children you love them, that you will talk to them when they are done talking with the other parent, and then leave the room. Wait until your spouse is done with the children. Then soon after (immediately if possible) have your own personal conversation about the divorce with your children.

3. Tell your children all together.

Divorce ends your marriage, not your family. Siblings will be a strength for each other (even if you think they hate each other!) Tell them together to utilize that sibling strength.

4. Admit that getting a divorce will be hard for them.

Tell them it is okay to cry. Hold them. Hug them. Tell them that you love them and will always love them and do your best to care for them. Ask them how they feel, and then don’t argue with them about how they feel. Rather you should normalize their feelings by 1) repeating back what they felt, 2) telling them you understand and 3)that many children probably feel the same way and it is okay to feel that way.  Now is not the time to fix your child’s broken heart, but only to recognize that it is broken.

Conversely, you should not cry or become emotional. You emotions will take away from your child’s ability to experience their own emotions because they will transition to trying to make you feel better.

5. Assure them that the divorce is not their fault.

Use whatever words or methods you need to make sure your children understand and believe that they are not to blame for the divorce. And certainly don’t blame them.

6. Keep it simple and age appropriate.

Speak first in a way that the youngest child will understand. Then expand into language that even your oldest will understand. But remember to keep the content  simple. Even the oldest children do not need to know the specific and complex details that no doubt describe the relationship you have with the other parent.

You should tell them what the plan is (ie. where they will be living, with whom, what the parenting plan will be, how they will be able to see both parents, etc.). Let them ask questions. Answer if you can. If you do not yet know, be honest and tell them so. Assure them that you will tell them when you find out.

7. Make sure your children know you BOTH love them.

Let your children know that you and your spouse BOTH love them and that you BOTH will always be their parents.

8. If you can’t say anything nice (about the other parent) DO NOT SAY ANYTHING AT ALL (about the other parent).

Most parents know this is true. And most parents can’t help themselves anyway. This is serious. Very serious. Seriously.

You love your children, so prove it. Be the parent and DO NOT say anything (ANYTHING) negative about the other parent. Your child will never thank you because they will never experience all the trauma you just saved them.

Your child might hear these negative comments directly or indirectly. Think about your conversations with your parents, on the phone to your friends, after the children are in bed but not yet asleep. Are your children listening? You bet they are! Remember, divorce just destroyed their world so they are hyper-aware (and hyper-sensitive) of anything to do with your relationship with the other parent.

9. Recognize signs of distress.

You know your children. You know how to hold them and love them. When you see them distressed, respond so they will experience your love and your patience. If your child experiences ongoing distress consider seeking support from a marriage and family therapist or other professional help. Professionals are well trained and many have experience in helping children and families through divorce.

10. Your child is NOT your therapist.

If you rely on your child to provide you comfort and solace, they will most likely feel an increase in stress and internal conflict. Your responsibility to your child as a divorcing parent is to give, give, give. Give love, give patience, give support. You should not expect to get anything back. If you need support, find it elsewhere (family, friends, church, therapist, etc).

Telling your children about the divorce will be hard for you and for them. But by following these 10 tips, you are more likely to minimize the pain. You will create a space in your relationship where your children can go for healing to begin and for help coping in their new world.

Dustin Stucki, J.D., LMFT

Dustin Stucki is an Attorney at Law, and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the Sacramento and Foothills area in California. He founded Stucki Law Firm with the goal of helping families get through divorce, support, and custody issues with the least amount of trauma as possible.