If you’re getting divorced or going through a separation and have children, the reality of having to tell your children about this major change in their lives (and yours, of course) is all too painful. It’s life-changing, there’s no way around that. It might make them angry, sad, or even relieved, depending on their age and your family’s unique situation.
No matter how you break the news, it’s probably going to be uncomfortable for everyone. Dr. Robin Hornstein, a therapist and life coach, suggested that if parents are able to do it as a team, that is best for everyone. “The best approach is to demonstrate that the family remains a whole even if a lot will be changing,” said Dr. Hornstein. That way, in this conversation, the children still see their parents coming together as a whole.
How to Plan the Conversation
When parents have difficulty with this type of conversation, Dr. Hornstein recommended going to a therapist or mediator who can help guide the conversation so that both parents can talk to the kids with a similar story.
“Remembering to make promises that will and can be kept is important, telling a version of how things will look is important for kids to know what to expect. Kids like predictability and to trust the adults in their world,” said Dr. Hornstein. For example, saying you will see both parents every week when one parent is moving three states over for business is not a message you would want to share, explained Dr. Hornstein.
“Remember, for some kids this is a relief and they saw it coming and for others, there is complete shock,” said Dr. Hornstein. “Don’t say too much at once, let kids develop their own questions, and make the telling be a process for everyone. Adults who get to this point have been processing for quite a lot longer than the kids who are suddenly in the world of loss and change.”
Dr. Hornstein mentioned that the adults have had time to go over this and maybe even come to terms with it, whereas for the children, it will be a huge change that they will need to come to terms with on their own. “Allow them time to process and ask questions if they need to,” said Dr. Hornstein. “Make them feel loved. Let them know that they are not the cause of the divorce and that this decision is made with everyone’s best interest at heart.”
Different Approaches Based on Age
Dr. Hornstein explained that the rule of thumb is to handle this situation as you would when breaking any type of difficult news. For example, if one parent is sick, you may tell a teen separately from a 4-year-old since the teen may ask questions that may be scarier for the younger child to hear.
“If you can do it as one whole family and that is how news is usually shared, do it,” said Dr. Hornstein. “However, if you do choose to tell your children separately, make sure you tell the kids the same day, as they will talk to each other.”
Answering questions based on how old kids are is very important said Dr. Hornstein.
“If the divorce involves moving, a younger child might be more worried about not seeing their parents than leaving their high school in 10th grade. You need to be clear about what are flexible things that kids can ask for and what things you cannot negotiate.”
For example, if the house needs to be sold, but you have kids in schools where they are thriving, moving close may be more important than buying a bigger house in a school district where the kids will not have friends.
Kids may ask questions you may not want to answer, said Dr. Hornstein. For example, be prepared if they ask if another person is involved with either parent or if they did something wrong. “Be truthful and be reassuring.”
Does Environment Matter?
No matter how and where you break the news, it’s going to be painful for everyone. Dr. Hornstein said that while some factors make a difference, it is not very relevant. “Not right before bed, not right before school or a test. And not best done before one parent leaves the next day and the kids have not processed anything with that parent.”
Home could be best since it’s a familiar place of comfort for them, and while the news will still sting, news like this is best given in a familiar “safe” spot.
However, hearing about a divorce in a “good” setting only helps a little when this news will hurt a lot. Dr. Hornstein said to make it easiest for yourself and your kids to digest the information.
Ways to Make the Transition Easier
Tough situations like these are best handled by allowing your children to feel involved. Let your children ask questions, allow them time to process new information, and then when moving forward, get them involved, recommended Dr. Hornstein.
Let your children feel and see some of the positives in this situation. Dr. Hornstein also said that by allowing your children to ask questions, you are letting them know that their concerns are important to your decision—even though it won’t change your mind, of course.
Allowing them to be aware that this will be a transition is best. You can’t get around that. Things will change, but there are ways to make this change a positive one for your children. Try to get them excited about new experiences, potential new friends (if a move is involved), a new room, etc.
Reassure your children that while certain things will change, one thing will always remain: your love for them.