This is an important and difficult time for everyone involved. You need to give your child every opportunity to understand, to the extent possible, what is happening. Research tells us that children will retain a memory of how he/she were told about the divorce long after the divorce is final. Likely retaining the memory over a long period of time is due to the child’s shock about being told and how he/she was told. Unfortunately, most children do not forget the day they are told about the divorce. Below are a few guidelines to help you when the time comes to inform your child that you and your spouse are divorcing:
Tell Your Child Together—if at all possible, it is important for both parents to be present when telling your child. Such a display of unity regarding your roles as parents will help your child understand that although the relationship between his/her parents is changing dramatically, you will both continue in your parenting relationship with him/her. When both parents can take responsibility together, the children benefit from a united message even though both parents may not feel the same way about the divorce. Your child will feel the impact of learning about the divorce less when Mom and Dad stay in her/his parental roles when giving the children the difficult news. Also, if you have more than one child, research shows that it is better to tell all the children together and not, for example, just the oldest first. Telling one child only and not the others indicates that the child who is told is meant to keep a parent’s secret about the divorce which can be difficult for a child to bear and potentially cause more trauma.
Game Plan—if at all possible, it is important to discuss with your spouse in advance what will be said. It may be helpful to write down an outline of what you need to say. Remember that this is a discussion that your child will remember for the rest of his/her life. You don’t want it to be a forum for negative feelings toward your spouse. For this reason, it is extremely important that you and your spouse make a firm commitment not to argue or put each other down when you are telling your child about the divorce.
Time to Tell—plan a specific time to inform your child. Arrange at least an hour to tell your child. You probably will not need an hour, but you want to make sure that you have enough time to address all the issues and answer any questions your child may have. The time should be one that will not be interrupted. The conversation should occur prior to a parent moving out of the marital residence. During the conversation, do not allow distractions and, if possible, the conversation should happen earlier in the day.
Where to Tell—the place should be a safe place for your child. Typically, this place is his/her current residence and not a public setting.
Your Child’s Understanding—obviously, the younger the child, the less understanding he/she will have. Terms that adults use such as love, marriage, and divorce can be difficult for young children to understand. You might become frustrated if your expectations for your child’s level of understanding is too great. It is important, therefore, for you to have an awareness of what children at different states of life usually understand about divorce: infants will have no understanding and toddlers will understand that one parent no longer lives in the home. Preschoolers, however, can understand when parents are angry, upset and live apart but most likely will not understand why. Elementary-age school children on the other hand, begin to understand what divorce means (such as the parents no longer love each other and will not live together). Preteens and adolescents understand what divorce means but may not necessarily accept it.
Tone—there is no easy or perfect way to tell your child you are getting a divorce. First, however, it is important how you say things. How you say things will be just as important as what you say. Nonverbal communication is more powerful than verbal communication. Most children are very sensitive to each parent’s emotional state and sometimes children will mirror the emotional reaction of their parents. If you become too overwhelmed during the conversation, excuse yourself, recover, and return to resume the conversation.
What to Say—you want to keep it simple and straight forward. You want to be honest and nonjudgmental. When you tell your child, it is not a time for blame. Honesty does not mean that you should go into the details of why you are divorcing. It is important, however, that you do not lie to your child. Also, research shows that children prefer a message that avoids their parents blaming each other.
Eg. “Your mom and I have been trying for a long time to work out our differences and problems in our relationship. We have reached a time where we realize that we cannot be happy living together anymore. And we have decided to get a divorce. This is sad for both of us, but we want you to know that we love you very much and we will both continue to love you and care for you just from separate homes.”
Eg. If appropriate, you can add, “we want you to know that it is not your fault and there is nothing you can do that would stop our love for you”. You want to stress that the divorce is in no way his/her fault.
Eg. Also, if appropriate, you can describe specifically what will remain the same and what will change from his/her perspective such as: where Dad will live and where Mom will live; will he/she change schools; will friend groups change; etc. If you have an older child, you may want to outline steps that you and your spouse have taken to try to save the marriage.
When to Talk Again—this talk will likely not be the last regarding the divorce. Most likely, your child will (and should) have questions. You child might react positively to the fact that his/her parents are divorcing, thankful that the conflict will hopefully end or lessen. However, other children react with sadness and some with despair. You can help your children process the news about the divorce by listening to her/his concerns and encouraging questions from your child. Always acknowledge his/her feelings with love and concern. You could say, “Sometimes when moms and dads divorce, children have questions like, “Where will I live after the divorce?” Do you have questions like that? Be sure to check in with your child two or three days after the initial conversation to see if he/she has any questions/thoughts about the divorce.
Anticipate Questions—your child may have a variety of questions about the divorce. Below are several by age group:
Elementary Age Children May Ask—
- “Who will take care of me?”
- “Who will pick me up from school?” or “take me to school?”
- “Where will I live?”
- “Will I still be able to be with both of you?”
- “What will happen if I get sick?”
- “Will I still be able to have my pet?”
- “Will we live in the same house?”
- “Will you still be my Mommy and Daddy?”
- “Where will Daddy/Mommy live?”
- “Will I still keep my bedroom?”
Adolescent Children May Ask—
- “What do I tell my friends?”
- “Will I have to move?”
- “Will I have to go to Mom’s/Dad’s apartment every weekend?”
- “Will I have to change schools?”
- “Why are you doing this to me?”
- “Can I still have my friends spend the night sometime?”
- “Why can’t you just work it out?”
Be sure to take care of yourself and your emotional needs before and after the conversation. Know that the conversation will be difficult for you and likely just as difficult for your child. Naturally, most parents fear the pain that their children will feel after learning about the divorce and they want to shield their children from the pain and suffering. In every difficult circumstance, there exists the opportunity to learn and grow. Divorcing parents have the opportunity to teach their children how to handle pain effectively, to learn from it and to grow as a result of it. Remember, how you divorce and how you and your child’s other parent handle the divorce process will have an immense impact on your child’s adjustment as well as your own.