Here you are, facing the conversation you never wanted to be having with your children: you are getting a divorce. The road ahead is daunting regardless of your divorce circumstances, and what you worry about more than anything is how this is going to affect your children. You wonder when to tell them, how will they react, how will you face this conversation without completely losing it? Will you do this together, will you each talk to them separately? Perhaps you wonder if you are making a huge mistake or you may be angry and deeply hurt by the circumstances you’re soon to share with your most beloved humans. The “what ifs” swirl around in your mind, keeping you up at night in a big ball of anxiety and stress. While the road ahead may not be easy for a while, both you and your children can find healing and comfort, especially when these crossroads are addressed with emotional awareness and compassion.
Children will have different responses to divorce based on their age, developmental stage, who they are and how they process their feelings. Most importantly children will want to know what this means for their lives and how they will be affected. Divorce can indeed be stressful for children, but the more we can approach it with awareness of their needs and the space for their emotions, the better off they will be.
Here are some important pointers for telling your children that you are getting a divorce:
- Have the conversation with the family together (if this can be done effectively). Have a game-plan with your spouse about your plans for the conversation, so that neither parent is caught off guard. Do it at a time when no one is rushed and the family can potentially be together afterwards and play, connect, have a meal, watch a movie, etc. Although it may feel hard or heavy, it’s important that kids see from the start that you are working together as a family, even as you transition to a new kind of family. Kids should know that while your family structure and circumstances are changing, their parents will always be there for them.
- No blame— this is not the place to disclose to children the wrong-doings of the other parent. This is the time to be as neutral and supportive of each other as possible. Be certain to have your own support network (Avail Divorce likes to call them your “Power People”) and therapist so that you have a place to take your charged feelings.
- Keep the conversation focused on the kids. Keep it simple and factual. Do not overwhelm them with too much information. Your children don’t need to know all the details of your divorce, especially young children. Their biggest concern is, “What will happen to me?”
- Let them know this isn’t their fault. Children need reassurance that this isn’t their fault and that there was nothing they could have done to change this. Depending on their age, they may also wonder about whether this is temporary and that mom and dad will be back living together soon enough. Clarify this for them. Be honest with your children—they need to know what to expect so they can begin to adjust to their new reality.
- Talk to your children about the arrangements you and your spouse are making for what their lives will look in the coming days, weeks and months. If you don’t know, it’s okay to tell them you don’t know. Try not to make promises about how future arrangements will be until you are reasonably certain.
- Let your children know they can come to you anytime if they have questions, thoughts or feelings about the divorce and you will do your best to answer. Answer simply with developmentally appropriate responses and give the information they’re asking for—not too much, as this can feel overwhelming.
- Know that children will process this new information differently in the moment, depending on their age, personality and other factors. Be open to your children’s big feelings about this. Be available to listen to them, hold them as they cry, allow them to be angry. You can let them know, “Of course you’re going to have so many feelings about this. It’s ok to feel this. I am here for you. Do you want me to hold you while you cry?” You can also invite them to open up more, “Tell me more about it, sweetie,” or “I wonder how this feels for you.” Also be open to the fact that some children will not have a lot of feelings to process in the moment. And it may take more than one conversation for them to understand.
- Keep children’s lives as consistent as possible during and after the divorce. Minimize the number of changes children will have to experience as a result of this divorce. Divorce is a major life transition for kids and they may be worried about things like changing schools, not being in the same neighborhood as their friend circle, maintaining their extracurricular activities. If possible, hold off on introducing new potential partners into the mix until children have adjusted to their new family structure and until the relationship is serious and long-term. Provide your kids with the reassurance that other parts of their lives are going to stay stable, even though their parents won’t be living together anymore.
- Reassure your children that you will always be a family, even when you are divorced. You will both work to put their needs first and make sure they are cared for. They need to know that you both love them, regardless of what the circumstances are like and what the future holds.
What to expect and how to approach this from a developmental perspective
At each developmental stage children will process grief, transitions and big emotions differently. They also have different capacities for concrete thought. It’s important that parents address their children based on their age, emotional maturity and developmental capacities. Parents often wonder how to address the difficult question of “why” they are divorcing. Below you will find some suggested language to get you started in creating a coherent narrative for your children based on your family’s experience.
Signs of distress:
Sleep and eating disturbances, acting out behaviors, emotionality, whininess, tantrums. Regression. These are all indicators that the child is having a stress response and needs support. Preschoolers often take in the information you are giving them about divorce and do not outwardly seem to be processing it right away. Trust that they are. They will likely bring up questions and thoughts about it at times you aren’t expecting.
Suggested Language— Concrete and Clear:
“Mommy and daddy have made the decision to get a divorce. That means that we won’t be living in the same house anymore. Daddy is going to live here and mommy is going to live in another house. Both houses will be your homes, and you will switch between the two homes. We will still both always be your parents. You will always be taken care of and you will always be loved.”
Signs of distress:
Anxiety, fear, sadness, irritability. Regression and even things like baby-talk, bedwetting. These children understand permanence more and will need help integrating the fact that this is going to be their “new normal”.
Suggested Language— Addressing the “why”:
“Sometimes grownups don’t communicate well. Sometimes we fight and make big mistakes without learning how to talk to each other about our feelings well. We weren’t able to learn together well how to deal with our feelings and how to work through our fights in safe, healthy ways. We know this is hard for you and may really hurt for a while. We also know that we will always be a family, you will see both of us a lot and we will keep working together the best we can to do what’s right for you every step of the way.”
Signs of distress:
Irritability, anger, acting out behaviors. Retreating to their rooms or staying away from home as more than usual
Suggested Language— Helping them understand:
“What leads to divorce is so complex and we’ve made this decision for a lot of reasons. We didn’t communicate well over many years. We weren’t able to deal with our feelings well together and we ended up arguing a lot. I’m sure you felt the tension between us for a long time. It wasn’t just one incident but many issues over years that built up. We didn’t know how to stop arguing and the fights between us kept happening. We didn’t work on our connection with each other and make time to spend alone, nurturing our relationship. So we grew apart. And we are now realizing we are better off as friends and co-parents than as a married couple. We all deserve to have relationships that feel really good to us. Where we each can grow and be our best versions of ourselves. And unfortunately that isn’t something that was happening in our relationship any more.”
Above all, give children time with you to process their emotions, work through their grief and express their concerns. When children feel seen, heard, met and understood in relationship, even difficult circumstances become more manageable for them because they know they are supported and that their feelings matter. If you see that your children are showing signs of distress it is important to have them work with an experienced mental health professional who can be an outside source of support to them.
While divorce is never a road that people intend to end up on, it is also a journey that can empower you and your kids to be more resilient, authentic and whole.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I’m Sanam Pejuhesh. I am a Mama, a Play Therapist and a Parenting Coach with a passion to serve the world by supporting children and families to live to their fullest potential. I have been working with children and families for over twenty years in a variety of settings including in my thriving private practice in Boulder since 2010.
I have a BA in Psychology from UC Berkeley and an MA from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in Integral Counseling Psychology . I have been fortunate enough to work with and learn from some of the cutting edge leaders in the field of Play Therapy. I am certified in Synergetic Play Therapy, EMDR and the Rapid Relief Method. My extensive training and background, as well as my passion as a mama and a human to grow and expand myself constantly, allows me to help my clients and students calibrate to new levels of their potential. My greatest passion is being a parent to my daughter. I am a single mom and we live a beautiful life in the mountains of Colorado.