A Few Tips: Telling Your Kids About the Divorce

by: Julia Rodgers

How do you break the news to your children after deciding to divorce? And when? Despite how difficult this conversation will be, talking to your children may be one of the most healing parts of the adjustment period. Divorce is uncharted territory for most of us, so naturally, parents are often unsure about what to say or how to say it. Similarly, children often feel like they do not know how to ask for the information they need. Both children and adults have been known to shy away from having painful divorce-related conversations in order to protect the other.

According to research, 75% of divorcing parents spend a total of only 10 minutes talking to their children about divorce.[1]Yes, you read that right...ten minutes! Children need to both hear about this change in the family and to talk about it after— even if they don’t want to. Strive to be in the healthier 25% of parents who spend more time talking to their children about this huge life change.

Here are some general suggestions for telling your children about your Massachusetts divorce:

Tell Them Soon — But Not Too Soon

Sitting on the information for any longer than a couple of weeks can be too long, but experts believe telling children too far in advance can be just as damaging. This is a delicate balance.

Telling your children too soon about the divorce could cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety if you and your spouse later decide to work things out. However, waiting to tell your children about the divorce can cause them to experience an enormous amount of anxiety. Keeping children in the dark until things are far underway or until the divorce is filed or even finalized is largely detrimental as well - they will feel left out of the conversation. Divorce can be a long, drawn-out process, even in the best of circumstances - and children should be prepared to understand how these changes will affect their lives. In fact, children should know about the divorce a few weeks before things are set in motion, so that they can emotionally prepare[2].

Have a Plan

Parents should make a collaborative, basic plan on how they intend to inform their children about 2-3 weeks ahead of actually breaking the news. Depending on the children’s age and involvement, you do not need to divulge every detail (and in most cases, should not divulge ever detail!), but you should be able to share the basics, such as: who will stay in the marital home for the time being, and other logistical details, if  you know them, and how the divorce will affect the children’s everyday lives and activities such as soccer practices and birthday parties. Change does not have to equal chaos.

Consider what your children will be concerned about, such as variations in holiday traditions. Remember, what you are concerned about may not be the same things your children are concerned about -- kids aren’t interested in the details of spousal support orders or tax consequences, and to burden them with these issues is a mistake. Your child may come up with questions you haven’t thought of . . . that doesn’t make their questions abnormal. If you don’t know the answer, admit it and reassure them that you are working on it and will keep them informed and safe. While these small matters might be low on your list of concerns at the moment, they are crucial to your child’s feelings of stability and normalcy. It’s important to relay the important details that will directly affect the children. Be patient and prepared to answer their questions.

A notable concern of many children is how much time they will be able to spend with each parent. Reassure the children that certain things will remain the same and mention which things will be different. Assure them that while there will be changes, you and your spouse are going to try to make the transition as easy as possible. Encourage the children to be open with their feelings and alert you when things are not working.

Avoid the Details

Keep the fine details out of it unless the child makes a direct inquiry. Children struggle with trying to wrap their minds around the idea of their parents divorcing as it is; they shouldn’t be burdened with small, personal, or financial details pertaining to the divorce. The reasons and nuances are of no concern to the children. Save the complicated details for the future and worry only about the basics in your plan to tell the children about your divorce. Also, do not blame the other parent for the divorce or disclosing personal reasons for the divorce - this will only affect the way your children perceive one of their parents.

Tell the Children Together

Not only should you join forces with your spouse, but you should also tell all of your children together, unless otherwise instructed by a therapist or psychologist. This will prevent one child (usually the eldest) from discovering the news first and bearing the burden of the secret information. You might think that telling the oldest, most mature child first to shelter the younger children is a good idea. However, according to professionals, this achieves nothing more than unfairly burdening your child with what can be seen as earth-shattering news. If one child is forced to carry the extra weight of the information of your divorce, he or she is deprived of the support of his or her siblings and the coping process is stunted. Breaking the news to the children while they’re together is the healthiest option for all parties[3].

Choose a Quiet, Private Place to Talk

Talk in a quiet, private place to avoid distractions and to give your children your undivided attention. The setting will help convey the seriousness of the conversation. Choose a safe space so your children will feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, reactions, and feelings. It should be a space where your children will feel safe asking any and all questions they have about the impending divorce. The location will also allow for the possibility of an emotional reaction. Talking to children in a quiet, private space allows them to express themselves authentically.

Choose a time and place without obligations and distractions, like a weekend night at home. You might consider having the conversation at the beginning of a weekend so that you can be present for follow-up conversations after the initial talk. For younger children, notify their teachers the day before “the talk” to prepare them for any potential “acting out.” Recruit a support system of grandparents, school counselors, and people of authority in your child’s life. Ask important figures in your children’s lives to be sensitive, understanding, and discreet with the information.

divorce and child custody in MA

Choose Your Words Carefully 

There are several staples for a divorce-related conversation with your children. Repeat these important messages throughout the initial discussion and in the months to come.

  • This has nothing to do with the children. Let your children know that divorce is purely an adult decision and it has nothing to do with anything the children said or did. Help the children know that there was nothing they could have done differently and that your decision to divorce was and is entirely outside of their control. Many children believe that if only they were better or nicer, Mom and Dad would not be separating. Make sure they understand that this is not the case. As things progress, never bring the children into the middle of your divorce and don’t make them feel like they need to choose sides.
  • No one is blaming anyone else. Make your children understand that they are free to continue loving and respecting each parent fully and that they should not feel disloyal to either parent by loving the other.
  • This is not an impulsive or temporary decision. Divorce is something that parents have decided to pursue after a very long time of trying to make their marriage work.
  • You are still a family. Let your children know that you still and will always love them, that you will continue to be their parents, and that no one is going anywhere. Many children feel they are expected or required to take on a role as messenger or caretaker. In fact, now is a great time for you(and your future ex) to be more attentive, supportive, and communicative than normal with the kids. Though one parent might be moving out or seeing the children less often, reassure your children that you and your spouse will forever be a part of their lives and that you will always be there for them — even if not always physically.
  • The children’s feelings are normal. Let your children know that you understand they might feel concerned, sad, angry, or confused, and that these emotions are perfectly normal. Tell your children honestly that you and your spouse welcome communication and will listen and help the children cope with these new, confusing emotions.

Try to use language that your children will understand based on their age, intellect, and character. “Speaking the same language” as your child shows that you are available and accessible.

Be Ready for an Array of Reactions

Sometimes children have temper tantrums, while others burst into tears of grief and confusion, and still others pretend they did not even hear you. Some children are stoic and say nothing, while some kids have hundreds of questions. While stoic or reticent children need to be coaxed over the next few weeks to speak to their parents, try not to hound the children about their feelings. They need a chance to process the news and will likely think of new questions every day. No matter how the figurative cookie crumbles, your child’s reaction might be difficult to predict. Be ready for anything, and make sure the appropriate professionals (therapists, counselors) are lined up to help.

A Few Final Thoughts

The more you communicate with your children in the beginning of the divorce process, the easier it will be to achieve emotional stability in the future. One study revealed that the majority of children (56.9%) reported that no one had explained to them what the divorce might mean for them in the future and 64.4% stated that no one asked for their views on the divorce.[4]Over two-thirds believe they should have been asked. Communicating with your children about divorce-related topics can be challenging and heartbreaking. However, talking with your kids about important milestones, their concerns, and the future by using the tips above will help both parents and children adjust to the new family dynamic.

If you have concerns about protecting or sheltering your kids, keep in mind that children are surprisingly able to cope and be resilient, and they are active participants in an evolving domestic structure. Recognizing their inevitable involvement will help you attend to and value their input and experience. Additionally, if you leave them in the dark, there is a high probability they will be worrying about the worst possible scenarios their imaginations can dream up, which are likely far more catastrophic than the reality of an amicable divorce.And, always avoid fighting with your co-parent in front of the children, and to resist exposing them to new love interests. Your children need time and space just like you do.

[1]Lisa Herrick, “Guide to Telling the Children about the Divorce,” accessed August 1, 2018, https://lisaherrick.com/separation-and-divorce-work/guide-to-telling-the-children-about-the-divorce/.

[2]Lisa Herrick, “Guide to Telling the Children about the Divorce,” accessed August 1, 2018, https://lisaherrick.com/separation-and-divorce-work/guide-to-telling-the-children-about-the-divorce/.

[3]Ian Butler, et al., “Children’s Involvement in their Parents’ Divorce: Implications for Practice,” Children and Society, 16 (2002): 89-102.

[4]Ian Butler, et al., “Children’s Involvement in their Parents’ Divorce: Implications for Practice,” Children and Society, 16 (2002): 89-102.

Top Massachusetts Divorce lawyerTo speak with a lawyer about divorce or a child custody matter, contact Mavrides Law in Boston or Wellesley, MA. To schedule an in-depth initial consultation, call 617-723-9900 or contact the firm at info@mavrideslaw.com

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