When going through separation and divorce, couples are so focused on the dissolution of the marriage, that they may push aside the importance of breaking the news to their kids. Ideally, talk to the kids as a couple. You’ll need to break down in an age-appropriate manner what will happen and how it will happen. This works best when you meet prior and discuss the talking points, it’s best to stick to the facts and be mindful about maintaining a unified front, keeping their wellbeing at the center.
We’ve identified four things to be aware of when discussing divorce with your child. These will help you proactively address some of their concerns and help them begin to process what is going on.
The love parents have for their kids will not change.
A lot of kids worry that divorce means one or both parents do not love them anymore. This gets amplified or personified when one or both co-parents are wrapped up with the divorce itself or emotionally ‘checked out’ of the family. This can bring on waves of anxiety and it is common for some kids to beg and plead with their parents not to divorce. Others may recede and become quiet, internalizing things as they process what is happening. Be prepared for a reaction while they process what is happening and how it is happening.
Children going through parental divorce, need lots of genuine expressions of love. Give them lots of hugs and be sure to tell them you love them. This is exactly what they need to hear.
While you, the parent, are obviously going through a lot, plenty of time needs to be spent with the child showing that the family, while in two different pieces now, is still a family. The parent should expect a proving period, length depending on the age and personality of the child. In other words, during this transition the kids will need consistent reassuring, this could be weeks to months until new healthy family rhythms are established. We will point out this does not justify guilt-driven spoils for your kid, it is about providing assured guidance through their feelings of grief and other emotions as they navigate through this tough transitional period.
The divorce is not the kid’s fault and there is nothing the kids can do differently to prevent it.
One of the most common reaction is the child blaming themselves. They’ll say they’re sorry and that they will behave better if the parents don’t divorce. You need to reinforce that the divorce has NOTHING to do with anything they did (or did not do). A child needs to be reassured that this was an ADULT decision based on the parent relationship and has nothing to do with them and both parents (hopefully) are committed to being the best parents they can be for them.
The child needs to also hear that nothing they do from now on will change the likelihood of the divorce. It is a done deal, at this point. This is something we/adults have been working through and this is the result. It is helpful to insert some truth and reality at this point as to why the divorce is occurring but no need to go into fine detail. Explain how the ability to stay married, under one roof, has become impossible. The more mature the child is, the more specifics they can hear. The hope is by telling them the truth behind the divorce, they will realize that they are not to blame.
Parents will eventually be happier after the separation/divorce and that will make them better parents.
While explaining why divorce is necessary, it can be mentioned that the needed change will eventually make the two parents happier people. If the child is mature enough, the parent could point out signs that they are not happy.
“Do you see how I have not laughed in some time, and that I seem irritable quite often? I want to change that. I want to be happier for me and be a better parent for you.” This also shows a good life lesson to the child that they should never stay in a situation that makes them miserable.
Keep the wellbeing of the kids at the center through it all.
Their home and family is breaking apart. It is important at this stage for both parents to acknowledge the anxiety the child feels.
Don’t just say, “I know, I know, yep.”
Dive into what the child is saying. “You are worried that you will now have two homes?” For weeks and months after this ~so long as you’re sensing their anxiety levels, you should consider one-on-one (emotional) check-ins. Give them a chance to share their feelings, anxieties, and concerns, even if you do not know all the answers they need to be heard.
Take a moment to point out what things will remain the same (ex. ‘Daddy will still drive you to school everyday’, etc.), and be honest about what will change. Understand, some kids will feel as if their world is blowing up. Be prepared to reassure them, they will need to hear this loud and clear from both of you.
Whether you know it or not you will be taking your first few steps as co-parents. Time to shift thinking a bit, do your best to work together, be ‘business friendly’ to each other, especially in front of the children, and keep the focus on the wellbeing of your kids. Be patient and kind to each other and your kids. This is a pattern that will pay itself back in dividends for years to come.
In addition to acknowledging the stress of the changes, allow the child to be a part of as many decisions as possible. Take them new home hunting. Empower them. Ask which couch they liked the best. This may seem trite but in fact it is empowering. When they help in making the decisions ~big or small, they will feel less loss of control and they will “own” more of the new things in their life.