Lisa Gabardi, Ph.D., LLC
Sharing the news with your children that you and their other parent are divorcing, moving into two homes, and living separately can create great angst and worry. What to say? What not to say? As parents, you want to protect your children from harm, yet you know that giving them this news is going to be painful.
You probably have lots of questions about how to handle this important conversation well and minimize harm to your children. And, there’s no trial runs or practice talks. There’s really only the one opportunity to have this important first talk about the divorce with your children. I know you want to do your best in having this important talk with your children.
The words you choose will set a framework for your children view the divorce, what they remember about it, and will set a tone for them about how you and their other parent intend to conduct yourselves through this process. For these reasons, this is a very important step in the divorce process. You want to be prepared, able to handle your own feelings, and be available to answer your children’s questions and support them.
In order to help you feel confident and prepared, I have identified the key messages you will want to send to your children in this brief, but important talk.
#1 Share the news. “We have something important to discuss. Mom/Dad and Dad/Mom are separating/getting a divorce/moving into two homes.”
#2 Give a brief, age appropriate explanation that avoids blame, is honest, (but doesn’t share too much detail about the intricacies of your marriage) and validates your children’s reality of what they may have witnessed/experienced/felt in the home. “We haven’t been able to get along as married partners and think we can be better parents from two homes than we can be married partners together.” “We haven’t been able to resolve some significant problems/differences in our marriage so we are getting divorced but will continue parenting from two homes.”
#3 This is not the child’s fault. They didn’t cause the divorce and they can’t fix it. “This is an adult problem between Mom/Dad. This is not because of you, is not your fault, and you can’t fix it.” “Love between adults can end, but the love between a parent and a child doesn’t end.”
#4 Ask about and validate feelings. “I’m guessing you might be having all kinds of different feelings about this news.” “I can understand how you could feel that way.”
#5 Identify specific things about their lives that will change. “Dad will be moving into an apartment at the beginning of next month.” “Some days you’ll be at Dad’s and some days you’ll be at Mom’s house.”
#6 Reassure them about the parts of their lives that will stay the same. “You’ll still go to the same school.” “Mom/Dad will still take you to dance/soccer class.” “You’ll still get to play with Pat on the weekends/afterschool.”
#7 Reassure your children that you love them and will be there for them. “We love you very much.” “We’re sorry to have to give you this news.” “We will always be your parents and will always be there for you.” “We will take care of you and help you through this transition.”
#8 Ask them if they have any questions. Answer honestly, but with appropriate boundaries about information they don’t need, and appropriate to each child’s age. It’s okay to say “We don’t know yet, but will let you know once we have that figured out.”
Hopefully, you now have specific ideas and scripts to help guide the talk you have with your children. You have bullet points for things to cover, to make it easier to remember. Of course, every family is different. You will need to adapt these general guidelines to the specifics of your family situation and the particular ages and temperaments of your children.
With these tips, you will be ready to help your children know that your family will ultimately be okay, and that their relationships with each of you as parents will remain secure and protected. With your thoughtful handling of this important conversation, your children can feel reassured that, while their family is reorganizing, their parents remain available to them, will continue to parent them, and they will be alright.
Still feeling unsteady? Still have questions and concerns? Wishing you had more details and further discussion of these key points? What about touchy topics such as when parents don’t agree with the “we decided to divorce” perspective or when one parent has had an affair? If this information leaves you wanting more, I discuss these key points, plus others, as well as these tough topics further in “The Talk”: A Caring and Confident Approach to Telling the Kids About Your Plan to Separate or Divorce(TM). Learn more about this educational video series, with companion tip sheets and worksheet here. It also includes co-parenting do’s and don’ts to set you on a path toward successful post-divorce co-parenting. While on the Products and Free Guides page, check out other resources as well; including a free tip sheet for Telling Your Children About Divorce.