The two most frequent questions that I get from parents who are about to initiate a divorce process are 1) when should I tell the children? and 2) what exactly should I say to them? This can be an extremely anxiety provoking conversation to anticipate having and a crucially important one to get right.
I have unfortunately seen far too many parents do a horrendous job with the first conversation about divorce, and I want to make sure that you do not fall into those same dangerous traps.
If you follow these guidelines, I can assure you that it will go as well as possible, and that you will spare your children the pain that these typical mistakes can cause.
When Should We Have the Conversation?
The first thing to consider is when exactly is the right time to inform the children that you are planning to get divorced. It is problematic both to tell the children too soon, as well as to tell them too late.
Problems with Telling Them Too Early
Once you and your spouse make the decision to divorce, there is usually a lengthy period of time during which you will be going through the process of negotiating or litigating the details of your divorce. During this time, both spouses typically remain in the marital home since one parent moving out is usually based upon all of the financial and legal issues being resolved.
Therefore, telling the children early on about the upcoming divorce will result in them living in a state of limbo for many months, anxiously awaiting the next step. Given that none of the details pertaining to custody or parenting schedules have been established, there is virtually no information to give to them regarding what that next step will even look like. The uncertainty can be overwhelming for them.
For these reasons, it is best not to prematurely open the conversation about the impending divorce with your children. Rather, your goal during this period should be to shield them from any marital conflict, never share any information about the legal proceedings with them, maintain as much consistency and predictability in their lives as possible, and take care of yourself so that your current emotional challenges do not spill over into your relationship with them.
Problems With Telling Them Too Late
Telling the children about the divorce just prior to one parent moving out is equally problematic. It does not give them ample time to accept the reality that the divorce is actually happening and to process their myriad feelings with you. They need adequate time to wrap their heads around this new reality before it is actually thrust upon them.
The Ideal Timeframe
Given the need to avoid telling them too early or too late, the optimum timeframe to have this conversation is three to four weeks prior to one or both parents moving out of the family home. This seems to be the perfect balance of giving the children enough time to start processing the reality of the divorce, giving you enough time to have developed the specific details about future custody arrangements, and not keeping them in limbo for too long a period of time as they wait for the changes to occur. I often suggest having this conversation on a Friday night or at the start of a vacation week so that the children have a few days at home with you to deal with their feelings before having to return to school.
There may be situations where the two of you may decide to physically and/or emotionally separate while still living together in the same house as you work toward divorce. This may entail sleeping in separate bedrooms, no longer eating meals together, spending minimal time together as a family, and engaging in only minimal communication with each other.
With younger children, you may be able to offer them believable explanations for these changes that they will accept (mommy snores so loud that I can’t sleep in the same bed as her, daddy is working long hours which is why he is gone so often). However, older children may require a more open explanation, and this then becomes the time to have the detailed conversation with them about the impending divorce.
What Should We Say?
This may be one of the most important and difficult conversations that you ever have with your children. It is going to lay the foundation for how they cope with the divorce for years to come and how they process it in their own mind. It is very important to get this right the first time because trying to repair the damage from initial missteps will be very difficult to do, though it is possible.
Let me detail the essential parameters for a healthy, effective conversation about the upcoming divorce with your children.
1. Have the conversation with both parents present
You and your spouse must, if at all possible, have this conversation together with your children. It is crucial for them to see that you can and will continue to work together as their parents, on their behalf, despite the fact that you are getting divorced. You must strive to do this as a focused team, not as adversaries, whose only priority is the well-being of your children.
2. Avoid blame
There need to be no accusations of blame of either parent, either overtly or subtly, for causing the divorce. Children need to be told that it is a joint decision and that it is no one’s fault (even if one or both of you feel strongly that it is). They need to understand that you no longer love each other in the way that a husband and wife should but that it in no way changes how much you love them. This is not the time or the place to prove to your children that you have been wronged or that one of their parents is a despicable human being causing the break-up of the family.
Rather, the goal of this discussion is to share the sad reality that the marriage is over and to reassure the children that they will never stop being loved and cared for by both of their parents.
3. Make it age-appropriate
Children should be given explanations that are at a cognitive level appropriate to their age so that they can clearly understand what they are being told. This may require talking to children of different ages separately. For example, if you have a 4-year-old and a 10-year old, it may make sense to speak to them individually since they will have very different levels of understanding of what you are trying to explain to them.
4. Share details about parenting schedule
It is important to share the details of the parenting time schedule with the children so that they understand exactly when they will be with each parent. Having clear expectations of what their future will look like will help them deal with the fear and uncertainty that the divorce process can cause.
5. Do not share legal or financial issues
Children should not be told about legal or financial issues, during this conversation or at any time in the future. You need to explicitly tell them that “this is the adult business of the divorce” and that it is not something that they need to be concerned about or that you will be sharing with them. You do need to reassure them that they will continue to be taken care of by both parents and that their needs will continue to be met as they have been in the past.
6. Assure them it is not their fault
Often children blame themselves for causing the divorce. This is most typical with younger pre-school age children and in families where there has been a lot of parental conflict around child-rearing issues. Whatever their age, it is very important to clearly and explicitly tell your children that they are in no way responsible for the divorce. You need to reassure them that no one, including them, is to blame or caused this to happen.
7. Allow them to process in their own way
You will not be able to predict how your children will respond to this discussion, regardless of how accurately you think that you can. Your “sensitive child” may appear totally unfazed, or your easy-going child may be overwhelmed with sadness and tears. Sometimes children have no immediate reaction at all. The important thing is to give each child the permission to feel whatever they need to feel. Your most important job is to be there to listen, support, and comfort them in whatever ways they appear to need. If they want to talk, listen. If they need to cry, hold them. If they need space to process this on their own, respect that and give it to them.
This is not going to be a ‘one and done’ conversation but rather one that will continue to take place for days, weeks, and perhaps years to come. Your role is to be available when they come to you with questions and answer them as clearly and age-appropriately as possible.
Children will continue to process the divorce throughout their childhood and beyond, and their level of maturity and cognitive development will determine the way in which they are currently thinking about it and the questions that they will ask you. Let them know that you will always be available when they have a need to talk and remind them of this frequently in the days and weeks to come. After that, it will be important to continue checking in with them periodically to assess how they are coping and provide them with the support that they might be needing at the time.
8. Be thoughtfully vulnerable
It is okay for you to be sad and tearful during this conversation and to share with your children that this is a very painful process for you as well. This actually serves to model for them that it is okay to cry and to express painful emotions. However, it is not appropriate for you to be uncontrollably sobbing and breaking down in a way that will appear scary to them. You do not want to give them the message that they are going to have to take care of you but rather that you are sad, that it is okay to be sad, and that you are able to be there to take care of them as they deal with their painful feelings. You also need to be cautious about sharing your anger toward your spouse with them. There is no good reason to do this, and it will only serve to unnecessarily hurt your children.
Following these suggestions will not make this conversation any easier but will serve to make it as healthy and productive as possible. It will lay a positive foundation for your family to cope with the next steps in the co-parenting journey as you work to create a new type of family unit. It is absolutely possible to do this well, to put your children’s needs above your own anger and hurt, and to help them best handle this difficult transition in their lives.
I can imagine that the prospect of handling these conversations with grace and composure might feel virtually impossible given the incredible stress, sadness, anger, and pain that you are probably feeling at this time. That is why it will be essential for you to learn how to most effectively deal with these painful emotions and get yourself into the right emotional state to best get through this and other difficult steps along your divorce journey.