Talking to Children About Divorce
My divorce clients often ask me when and how they should tell their children they are getting a divorce. My suggestions change from case to case, because each family's situation is different. Also, no one in the world knows your children better than you do. However, there are some general principles that tend to apply to most families.
When to Tell Your Kids You Are Getting Divorced
First of all, I would wait until your decision to go your separate ways is pretty final. That doesn't mean the divorce itself has to be finalized, but it does mean that you no longer believe there is much hope at all of saving the marriage. If possible, I would choose to tell the children somewhere between one week and one month before one of the parents is going to move out of the marital home (less time for younger children, slightly more time for older children). If the parents are already living separately, I would tell the children after the parents have agreed to divorce, although the terms of the divorce need not all be resolved.
There are a few reasons why I say to wait until you are sure. First of all, the decision to divorce will have a profound impact on your children, and there is no reason to worry them unless you are fairly sure you are done with the marriage.
Secondly, "we might be getting a divorce" is an extraordinarily confusing thing for a child to hear. Kids thrive on certainty, routines, and structure. Spending months or years waiting on the other shoe to drop is unnecessarily disturbing to a child's psyche, in my opinion.
Third, watching you waffle back and forth between staying married and splitting up may lead the children to hold out hope for reconciliation even when you do come to a final decision. Children appreciate it when their parents do everything within their power to set boundaries and make the world a safe place for their kids. So I would absolutely wait until you are pretty sure the marriage is over.
Another important word on timing: if at all possible, I would wait to tell the children at a time when their personal and academic lives are not incredibly busy, so that they do not struggle unnecessarily in other areas of their lives. I would also choose a time when you are available to talk for a few hours. This is an announcement that requires processing and discussion. Respect your children enough to give them that opportunity.
How to Tell Your Kids You Are Getting Divorced
If at all possible, I would suggest that you both sit down and tell them together. That way neither parent is worried about what the other one said behind his/her back and the kids see both parents being okay with the decision to go your separate ways.
First, you will want to get together with your spouse privately and talk about what you're going to say during this conversation - before you actually say it. It's important to present a unified message and communicate to the kids that you don't hate each other and you are on the same page about working together to continue to be good, loving parents even if you won't be married anymore.
What to say:
- Explain to them that you love them very much and that will never never NEVER change, but that some changes will be coming. Tell them that Mommy and Daddy have not been getting along lately, so Daddy (or Mommy, whoever) will be moving out to live [in a new house, in an apartment, with grandma/grandpa, etc.].
- Do they have friends whose parents are divorced so you can use that as part of your explanation?
- Let them know they are going to continue to see both of you on a regular basis.
- Tell them THE DIVORCE IS NOT THEIR FAULT. I cannot stress this enough. Kids are weird and they blame themselves. You will need to say this initially and repeat it often.
- Answer their questions in an age-appropriate manner. They are going to have LOTS of questions - where will we go to school, when do I visit each of you, what are we doing about Christmas, am I going to have a new mommy or daddy, do I still get to see Grandma, etc. They may surprise you. If they ask a question you haven't thought of, say something like, "That's a really good question. I'm not quite sure. Your dad and I are going to talk about that and get back to you with an answer, if that's okay with you."
- Acknowledge their feelings. They may be sad, angry, etc. Their feelings are their feelings, and they are entitled to feel them. Tell them that they can talk to either one of you about how they feel at any time, or if they want, you will help them to see a counselor to talk about their feelings. The counseling option is an important one for kids who are people-pleasers. They may not want to tell you they miss dad, or they may not want you to know they are sad about the divorce. Counseling is a "safe space" that really works for some children, although others don't need it. If you feel your children would benefit from counseling, I have suggestions of a few professionals I have found to be effective. Note: counseling may be covered by insurance.
- Tell them you're going to work as hard as you can to disrupt their lives as little as possible and preserve their routines.
- Be absolutely clear that you're not getting back together. Confusion drags out a child's emotional acceptance of divorce.
What NOT to say:
- DO NOT MAKE NEGATIVE REMARKS ABOUT THE OTHER PARENT. Period. Ever. Yes, EVEN IF IT'S TRUE. There is no faster way to get on the bad side of a divorce judge in Shelby County, Tennessee (or anywhere, really) than to say ugly things to the children about the other parent!
- In most cases, from a Tennessee law perspective, doing this is also contempt of court. This is because upon the filing and service of a complaint for divorce, a statutory injunction (a court order) goes into place automatically restraining both parties "from making disparaging remarks about the other to or in the presence of any children of the parties."
- What does "disparaging" mean? The dictionary defines it as to belittle, to speak contemptuously of, to depreciate, to lower someone's opinion of, to ridicule, to discredit, to mock, to demean, to denounce, or to derogate. I can't think of a single negative remark that wouldn't fall into that category, but even if you think it wouldn't, just trust me that you don't want to be litigating in a Memphis divorce court about the technical definition of "disparaging." The consequences for contempt are potentially steep, and could include fines, jail time, or losing custody of or parenting time with your children.
- Because of the above, and for psychological reasons, one question I would NOT answer honestly is whose fault the divorce is. I doubt you and your spouse even agree on that, and you don't want to get into mud-slinging in front of the kids. Your kids are half you and half your spouse. If you say he's controlling, they hear that THEY are half-controlling. If you say she's a cheater, they hear that THEY are half-cheaters. Just don't do it. It will damage them more than anything about this process. Instead, present the divorce as a unified, adult decision that you made together.
- Don't blow up or break down in front of the kids. Kids will take their cues on how to react from the two of you. Stay as calm as possible. They need you to be stable so that they can safely process their feelings. Save your screaming and crying for moments alone, the privacy of a counselor's office, or phone conversations with your mom when your kids aren't around to hear.
After the "Big Talk"
- Show love and keep talking. Just like the "birds and the bees" talk, the "we're getting a divorce" conversation is not going to be finished in a single day. They are going to continue to want to talk about it and ask questions about it as they process it more. Remember, you may have known this was coming for a while, but it's possible they've been blindsided with the news. Give them time to process and communicate openly with them.
- Encourage your children to have a healthy, close, and loving relationship with the other parent, both because it will benefit the children and because it will benefit you if you later find yourself litigating a petition to modify custody or parenting time. Fostering a good relationship between the children and the other parent is part of your responsibility as a parent, and it will make you look good if the case ever goes back to court.
- Listen sympathetically if they're with you and miss the other parent, or if they're with the other parent and miss you. Don't feel jealous that they don't forget about the other parent when they're with you, and don't gloat that the other parent can't keep them from missing you. Remember: your kids probably had in mind a parenting plan where they had 365 days a year with both of you. The change requires adjustment. And even as an adult, I sometimes just want to talk to my mom or my dad - there's nothing wrong with strong attachments to both parents. I firmly believe that those attachments lead to emotionally healthier adults.
- Allow phone calls to the other parent while the children are with you. Your parenting plan probably allows it anyway, but don't limit the times they're allowed to call the other parent if they want to do so (except, for instance, to set a firm bedtime or enforce homework time or other important family routines).
- Don't involve kids in adult matters. Don't send the child support check home with the child, and don't ask the child where the child support check is. Don't grill the kids about dad's new girlfriend. Let them be children.
- Don't ask, imply, or expect the kids should take sides. It's not fair and it will look really bad if you ever go back to court.
- Give the other adults in your children's lives - teachers, counselors, grandparents, etc. - a heads up about the divorce. Identify them as resources for the kids to talk to about the divorce if the adults say they are comfortable serving in that role, but ask the adults not to place blame on either parent for the divorce.
- Don't buy them a ton of expensive toys or let them get away with bad behavior because you feel guilty about the divorce. Kids appreciate structure and normalcy in the middle of a big upheaval, so continue to parent as you always have. While it's appropriate to recognize that divorce can cause some initial adjustment and behavioral issues, there's a difference between extending grace to your kids versus giving up on discipline because "I've already divorced their mom, I can't do all this other stuff to them too." Believe it or not, they will appreciate seeing that life is going on generally as usual, except that mom and dad don't live together anymore.
Ultimately, although divorce is an adjustment, the more respectful you are of your children and their needs, the more they will thrive post-divorce, and the less impact the divorce will have on their lives and their future.