As you have the initial conversations about divorce with your kids, you have the opportunity to help them feel safe, secure, and loved, at a time when they need it most.
Explaining divorce to your kids is undoubtedly challenging, but it is also an opportunity to show them how much you love them, to strengthen your relationship with them, and show them that life is always changing and that resilience, positivity, and support will see them through. Understanding how best to tell them; what words to use, how much information to share and when to share it, will help you to continue to provide security and stability for them throughout your divorce process.
Here are a few guiding principles that can help you to provide explanations and answers to your children’s questions.
Even though you may be hurting and/or feeling resentment toward your spouse, it is
important that you do not display negativity in front of your kids. Research shows that it is not the divorce that does long-term harm to kids, but rather it is conflict between their parents during the divorce that causes them harm. So before telling your kids about the divorce, you must first find ways to manage your communications with your spouse so that your kids are not exposed to any conflict between the two of you.
It is incredibly helpful to plan ahead to give your kiddos simple, easy to understand, and unbiased information. Whenever possible, meet with your co-parent ahead of the initial divorce conversation with the kids. You can collaborate to determine what you will say to the kids and then, if possible, tell them together.
Listen carefully to your kid’s concerns and feelings, even when they are really difficult for you to hear. It is hard to know your children are hurting, but resist the urge to jump in and “fix it” and instead listen more deeply. Now, you have the opportunity to:
- Strengthen your bond by thanking them for sharing their feelings with you
- Validate their feelings by letting them know that it is natural and normal to have some strong feelings as your family goes through this change
- Display resilience and positivity by making hopeful and uplifting statements about the future and about their other parent
Some children will show signs of relief at the news of divorce, because it signals a possible end to stressful conflict between their parents. However, it would be most common that children react with feelings of pain, grief, sadness, and anger. Although their feelings may surprise you, and although their feelings will shift over time, be sure to validate however they are feeling, and let them know that you are there to listen and comfort them. You might say, “I understand that you are feeling sad and that is normal when things are changing. How do you think you might be able to feel a little better?”
Provide reassurance by giving cuddles and letting them know you both love them and that you will have a happy two-home family. You might say, “It makes sense that you would be thinking about your new room at Mommy’s new house. You know Mommy is always so good at making things cozy and she said you can take a big bag of stuff with you until you get used to it. Let’s go pick out some things together”.
The news that you are divorcing will affect a toddler and a pre-teen in very different ways. Parents who choose collaborative divorce and divorce mediation with a trained mediator, will have some guidance on how to handle the situation. The use of books and other tools to help everyone work through their feelings can also be extremely beneficial. Below are some tips about how to approach children depending on their age.
Give them information that helps them to keep moving forward. You can help your kids develop resilience when, in the face of challenges, you stress the importance of staying active, maintaining routines, talking with friends and loved ones, and finding the hidden opportunity. This is a good time to let them know that all of us need extra support at times and that it is okay to ask for help. You might say, “Thank you for telling me you are worried about how things will feel in a new house, that is totally normal. Can you think of anything that might be really cool about having two homes? More friends? Maybe more time with Dad? Some new toys? Closer to your favorite park? etc.”
You can provide continued security and stability for your kids by ensuring that they have frequent communication with both of their parents. Work with your co-parent ahead of time so that you know what they are willing to accommodate. At first, you may need to be more flexible and allow for more frequent communication, especially for younger kids. You may decide that a once-a-day check-in will suffice to help comfort any of your kid’s concerns.
You and your co-parent will need to make some important decisions prior to talking with your kids. Keep in mind, research shows that children’s response to this initial conversation can color their feelings and memories about the entire divorce process. Some items to discuss:
- Can we put any anger, frustration, etc. aside for the sake of our kids? Can we agree to use kind, positive language, a gentle tone of voice, and to maintain an awareness of our body language?
- Do we agree that it is important that we both give the kids the same information at the same time?
- Delaying time between conversations with different children places a burden on the children if they are expected to ‘keep the secret’ until everyone has been told. This creates an unnecessary burden that will likely cause stress for the child. A mutual story that takes equal responsibility for the decision to divorce helps children to minimize guilt surrounding maintaining a positive relationship with both of you.
- Do we agree that it is important to leave out details that will be stressful or hurtful to the children?
- When and where will the kids be most comfortable receiving this information?
- How will daily life change for them and how will we make this easier for them? What routines can we maintain at both houses? How can we make drop-offs and pick-ups pleasant for them?
- How can we best show each other support as the kids adjust?
Regardless of your children’s ages, do your best to convey that their feelings are valid and that even though you will no longer be married, you are united as parents. Let them know that they are loved and that you are both ready to answer their questions.
Babies and Toddlers
Even babies and young children have a sense of their daily routine and have expectations around them. Because of their limited understanding, they will need very simple explanations. Initially, sharing time between parents may be difficult to understand and they may continue to look for the absent parent for some time. As time goes on, they will slowly learn that they have two separate homes. Do your best to reassure young children, facilitate frequent contact with both parents and be aware that they may continue to ask questions for some time. Be creative in how you help them adjust. It can help them to know they will see both of their parents every day. Maybe a pre-planned post-dinner face-time call, with whichever parent is absent, can be established as a new routine.
When children do not have the communication skills or vocabulary to deal with their emotions and feelings, you may see them regress behaviorally for a while. They may be a bit more clingy and whiny. This is normal and expected and they will need you to be patient and continue to provide all of the stability you can. Newly potty-trained kids may decide they need diapers. Sleep patterns may be disrupted. Just know that these are signs that they are doing their best to cope with the changes. Lovingly remind them that they are learning and that you know they will be right back on track. Often a bit of down time resolves these issues without further intervention. If the issues are persistent and/or become more serious, seek professional assistance.
School aged children likely have friends with divorced parents and have an idea of what life will be like once you have two households. Children this age often respond by blaming themselves and may need reassurance that their actions did not cause the divorce. As they learn to cope with complex emotions like anger, sadness and guilt, keep the lines of communication open and frequently reassure them that they are loved and their feelings matter.
Although there will be scheduling changes, children of this age feel supported when you can create similar routines within their two homes. For parenting drop-offs and pick-ups you can use polite greetings and express supportive words to your co-parent, and it will mean the world to your kids. Kids this age tend to worry about the parent who will be alone, so when you drop them off, do your best to let them know you have things you are looking forward to doing while they are away and that you want them to have fun.
Children this age frequently feel like they need to choose a parent to whom to be loyal. This can have little to do with the other parent, but rather stems from a primal desire to ensure their own safety and security. They may exhibit tearfulness and sadness during drop-offs and pick-ups. This may be due to genuine emotion but may also be their way of trying to make you feel better, knowing they want to be with you. This is likely a transitional phase and expressing confidence in their abilities and expressing support for your co-parent can go a long way toward helping them move forward.
Older Kids and Teens
For older children and early teens, divorce can be extra disruptive because it comes during an already confusing time of life. Speaking honestly and directly, without providing the details of the reason for your split, is the best way to talk about your divorce with your teens. Continue to provide consistent messages. It is very important to remember that speaking negatively about the other parent, where it can be heard by your kids, is emotionally stressful for the kids and potentially damaging. Belittling your spouse in front of your kids should be avoided regardless of how you feel about your spouse. Teens tend to feel that their parents’ “bad” traits or behaviors must be theirs as well. Talking about your spouse’s strengths and showing gratitude and support for them, will help your kids to have a happy, healthy two-home family.
Society presents a lot of negative messages about divorce and life after divorce, but the reality is we create our own futures. Divorce used to be taboo and often resulted in a lot of hatefulness and rejection. But modern divorce, managed in mediation, means you do not have to fight. You can be friends with your co-parent. You can even be friends with your co-parent’s new spouse! Yes, you read that right. But at the very least you can be civil and find ways to reduce any undue stress for yourself and your kids.
You do not have to rehash old baggage year after year. The marriage didn’t work, but it gave you the opportunity to parent your wonderful kids. You can focus on moving forward and providing a bright future for yourself and your kids. This can be a slow and challenging process, but ultimately, you are in charge of creating the life you want for you and your kids. Don’t limit how wonderful post-divorce life can be – Dream Big for your sake and for the sake of your kids.