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One of parents’ biggest concerns, once a decision to separate or divorce has been made, is how to tell the children. Parents wonder what to say and what not to say. They wonder when to share this news, and how to share it. It’s understandable that this topic weighs on their hearts and minds. As a parent, you want to protect your children from pain; and yet, you know that the transition of parents into two homes will cause some upset for your children. You can’t protect your children from the divorce, but there is a lot you can do to handle this conversation well for them.
Telling your children will be one of the early tasks of your divorce and a very important one. The words you choose will set a framework for your children’s divorce story and will set a tone for them about how you and their other parent intend to conduct yourselves during and after the divorce. For these reasons, this is a very important step in the divorce process.
In order to help you feel confident and prepared, I have identified the key messages you will want to send to your children in this brief, but important talk.
#1 Share the news. “We have something important to discuss. Mom/Dad and Dad/Mom are separating/getting a divorce/moving into two homes.”
#2 Give a brief, age appropriate explanation that avoids blame, is honest, (but doesn’t share too much detail about the intricacies of your marriage) and validates your children’s reality of what they may have witnessed/experienced/felt in the home. “We haven’t been able to get along as married partners and think we can be better parents together than we can be married partners together.” “We haven’t been able to resolve some significant problems/differences in our marriage so we are getting divorced but will continue parenting from two homes.”
#3 This is not the child’s fault. They didn’t cause the divorce and they can’t fix it. “This is an adult problem between Mom/Dad. This is not because of you/ is not your fault, and you can’t fix it.”
#4 Ask about and validate feelings. “I’m sad about this and am guessing you might be having all kinds of different feelings about this news.” “I can understand how you could feel that way.”
#5 Identify specific things about their lives that will change. “Dad will be moving into an apartment at the beginning of next month.” “Some days you’ll be at Dad’s and some days you’ll be at Mom’s house.”
#6 Reassure them about the parts of their lives that will stay the same. “You’ll still go to the same school.” “Mom/Dad will still take you to dance/soccer class.” “You’ll still get to play with Pat on the weekends/afterschool.”
#7 Reassure your children that you love them and will be there for them. “We love you very much.” “We’re sorry to have to give you this news.” “We will always be your parents and will always be there for you.” “We can take care of ourselves and will take care of you and help you through this transition.”
#8 Ask them if they have any questions. Answer honestly, but with appropriate boundaries about information they don’t need, and appropriate to each child’s age. It’s okay to say “We don’t know yet, but will let you know once we have that figured out.”
Hopefully, you now have specific information and scripts to help guide the talk you have with your children and that fit your unique family. It gives you bullet points to make it easier to remember and a structure to follow. Of course, every family is different. You will need to adapt these general guidelines to the specifics of your family situation and the particular ages and temperaments of your children.
Still feeling unsteady? Still have questions and concerns? Wishing you had more details and further discussion of these key points? What about touchy topics such as when parents don’t agree with the “we decided to divorce” perspective or when one parent has had an affair? If this information just leaves you wanting more, I discuss the key points, plus others, as well as these tough topics further in “The Talk”: A Caring and Confident Approach to Telling the Kids About Your Plan to Separate or Divorce(TM). Learn more about this educational video series, with companion tip sheets and worksheet here. It also includes co-parenting do’s and don’ts to set you on a path toward successful post-divorce co-parenting. While on the Products and Free Guides page, check out other resources as well as lots of free guides, tip sheets, and pamphlets; including a tip sheet for Telling Your Children About Divorce.
I hope that you have found this information helpful to you and your family! My goal is to provide a variety of resources for families to help them successfully navigate the transition of divorce.