How to Tell Your Child About Your Divorce
by Leah Koenig MA, LMHC
PCI Certified Parent Coach® & Family Therapist
Divorce is undeniably a social, emotional and financial upheaval for families. The time of divorce will almost always be held as an incredibly sad memory for children. Unfortunately, we cannot protect our children fully from the inevitable impact of this moment. We can however, do a lot to help them also attach to this memory a feeling of parent unity, nurturance and in doing so plant the seeds for the growth of resilience, so it becomes part of their life, not a traumatic part that they cannot let go.
When you decide to tell your child about an impending divorce it is best to tell your child together with your spouse and tell it on a day where there will be ample free time for processing of this information. Here are some key steps on how you can tell your children, manage the moment as well as the time afterward, in a way that will set them up to handle this successfully.
Prepare “The” Family Story
This first step is the hardest and requires that you come together, manage your emotions and practice restraint. Ideally you and your spouse agree on a reason you are getting a divorce; a reason that can be shared with your child at an age appropriate level. The details of your divorce are private and not for the ears of your children so keep this story very short, simple and honest. It should encompass four parts:
1. A general reason for your decision
2. The clear fact you are going to be living apart
3. Reassurance that the child plays no role in this dissolution
4. How you love your child, and this will not change
“You know how much mommy and daddy fight. It is really awful and sad for us. We have tried different ways to get along better but finally have decided that we cannot live together any more. It is hurting us too much. The reasons we fight have nothing to do with you; it is just about us. We love you, we love being your parents. Being your parents is the best thing that has ever happened to us. We will always together be your parents.”
Children can be very black and white thinkers and will be looking to assign blame and finding the “bad guy” where they can direct their anger. They can easily view one parent as the “bad” parent if you are not careful and give any reason for them to take sides. You may be emotionally driven to look good in your child’s eyes especially if you don’t want the divorce, but it actually does greater harm to your child if you put them in a position of splitting their loyalties between the two people they love the most in the world. You are divorcing to get them out of conflict not to place them in more conflict.
Your child will also look to themselves as the possible “bad guy”. Even if the situation appears self-evident that it is between the parents, every child will still think they play a role. Wipe this out of your child’s thoughts by making it clear that this is purely an adult issue and has nothing to do with children. Reassure them of your love. Then plan on communicating to them this idea that they play no part in the reason for the divorce. Repeat this periodically over the next few years. No child wants to hear that you are divorcing as some sort of gift to them; to get them out of conflict, to give them a more stable life etc. If you play it this way, they will carry that burden of being responsible for your divorce. Own the divorce as your own choice as adults and what is best for you as adults.
When they ask why
Your child may ask “why”. This again is not a time to air personal details. For most children what they want to know most is how this decision will affect them. Explain together how things will progress. If they persist on asking why, take that moment to reiterate that this is private between the adults and the reasons have nothing to do with the children. Focus on explaining what does concern them which is the rearrangement of family life. Early in the process, keep the details general, because at this point you may not clearly know the structure of your divorce agreements. Children are going to want to know what directly affects them so focus your conversation on their stable life. Talk about where they will live, whether they will need to change schools, where they will sleep, where they get to keep their toys, if they will have their own room.
Managing Your Emotions
Some parents believe that they need to be emotionless in order to create a sense of security for their child. Not only is this hard on your own body, it also creates a lot of confusion for your child. Divorce is a crisis event and we feel emotions during a crisis. Children look to their parents as a model for how to be in the world. If they see no emotion from you, they may come to believe they are not allowed to express emotion and it is wrong for them to be sad or angry. Your child will feel confused if you tell them everything is fine yet they can see the red rimmed watery eyes or the inexplicable angry outbursts.
Children will work to make sense of your emotional displays. Therefore, it is important that you are authentic, otherwise they will make up a story in their own head and it may once again be self-blaming. How you create security for your children is by owning and naming the emotion they see on your face so they are not confused with mixed signals.
Next, let your child experience how you are going to take care of your emotion. Label your emotion, demonstrate how you are going to take care of it, reconnect back with your child so they do not come to believe that emotions create distance.
“I feel very angry right now. I even want to yell, but instead I am going to use that energy to go for a run and that will make me feel better. When I come back how about you and I play a game?”
“I am sad today, I feel like I am going to cry. I am going to go take a nice warm, bubble bath and that will make me feel better. When I come back you and I can read a story together.”
Managing Your Child’s Emotions
When your child feels anger or sadness, know that this is okay. Your job is to simply sit with them. Take the pressure off yourself to remove the pain and rescue them. Just sit with them in their feelings and be empathetic. “I know this is a really sad time right now.” “It must be hard to feel this way inside.”
As parents, are job is to raise our children in a way that gives them the tools and skills to manage real life. In real life, there are situations that we encounter that are not solvable. This is one of them for your child. Divorce is out of your child’s control, so allowing those feelings to be expressed and flow through them will be an important way for them to gain their own resilience.
You will be tempted to rescue them from their own emotions by distracting them, making promises, offering gifts, or pointing out solutions. That is not what they need. Right now your child needs to know it is safe to express emotions. They need to be able to feel their emotions let those emotions flow through their body and not get stuck inside. Your ability to be calm with them, to make sure they are not feeling alone is critical. To do this, you must control your own internal and external experience. If at all possible do not hijack this moment from your child by having your own emotions and anxiety overwhelm their moment.
You and your family do not have to limp through divorce. By modeling emotional leadership, you and your children can not only survive divorce, you can all thrive and become closer.