How to Talk to Children About Divorce
Here are some simple tips on how to talk to children about divorce, a task that most divorcing parents dread. As parents, it goes against the grain to upset our children, especially when we are unsure of how they will react – or how we will cope with their reactions. It’s important to accept that strong emotions are inevitable and focus instead on ways in which your talk is an opportunity to do your children good.
By following these tips on how to talk to your children about divorce you can eliminate from the outset many of the fears and concerns that can cause long term emotional damage in children of divorce.
Choose the right time to talk to your children
- The sooner you talk to your children about divorce, the better. Even infants and toddlers can sense a change in parents which may be causing undue anxiety. As we all know, children’s imaginations can run wild.
- Talk to your children about divorce before any major changes take place. This makes it clear that they can trust you to be open and upfront. In other words, that divorce is not going to be a series of nasty surprises.
- Choose a time for your “important talk” which will not interfere with your children’s usual activities and events. One of the keys to helping children cope with divorce is maintaining routines. Start as you mean to go on.
Get support for your talk
- When you have chosen a good time to talk to your children about divorce, instruct friends and family to steer clear and not to call for news of how it went. You can’t be sure how long your talk will last. After your talk, you and your children will need quiet time together for reflection. You need to be 100% available to answer further questions or give them a hug, not tied up on the phone.
- If at all possible, talk to your children about divorce together with your spouse. This may be difficult but it is important that you make an effort to separate marital and parental issues and, as parents at least, act as a team. This is the most effective way to reassure a child that the end of your marriage does not mean the end of your family – that they are not going to lose one of you.
- If it is not possible to talk to your children together with your spouse, talk to each other beforehand to make sure you follow the same “script” and ground rules when talking to them individually. Above all, agree to keep negative thoughts about each other to yourselves whenever you talk to your children about divorce.
What to talk about – dos and don’ts
- Use age-appropriate terms that your children are sure to understand.
- Stick to immediate issues – to explaining that you are getting a divorce, explaining what divorce means, and addressing immediate concerns such as who is going to live where.
- When explaining what will change, remember to talk about all the things that will stay the same.
- Do not go into detail about your marital problems. It is enough for your children to know that they exist and that you have not been able to work them out. However, children may press for a reason. Agree with your spouse beforehand on what this is, again, keeping it simple.
- Provide key reassurances. The things that children most need to hear when you talk to them about divorce are:
- That they are not at fault.
- That neither parent is rejecting them: that both of you love, and will continue to love your children.
- That they still have a family, including both parents, grandparents and other favorite relatives.
- That their basic needs will still be met
- Emphasize the amount of time and thought that went into your decision. False hopes must be nipped in the bud to protect your children from an emotionally damaging cycle of hope and disappointment.
How do I tell the kids about the divorce?
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- During your talk, try to remain calm, confident and in control. Your body language and manner will send a strong message to your children about how they should feel about divorce, if not now then later.
- More immediately, be prepared for a strong emotional reaction when you talk to your children about divorce. It is unrealistic to expect anything less.
- If your children become angry or upset, do not become defensive or apologetic. Be honest and sympathize. Agree that this is a difficult, unhappy time. Above all, do not encourage hopes for reconciliation. Stay on track.
Concluding your talk
- Ask your children about any fears or concerns they have and answer honestly. If you don’t know how a particular issue will be resolved, say so, but assure them you will let them know when you do.
- Explain that you will always be available to answer questions – and make sure that you are.
After you talk to your children about divorce they may want to go to their rooms to think, or to sit quietly cuddled up with you. Alternatively, they may react positively if you suggest you go out and do something special together. Gauge the mood and act accordingly, and do not be hurt or overly anxious if your children are hostile and uncommunicative. Give them space and time.
As you can see, how you talk to your children about divorce will have a strong influence on how they will feel about and ultimately cope with your divorce. This won’t be immediately apparent but by following these tips on how to talk to your children about divorce the difference will be a positive one.