Telling your children you are getting divorced is one of the hardest aspects of separating. If you need some help to face this conversation, the following tips will get you on the right track.
You might make the decision to separate long before you part and live in different houses. For young children, it’s best to wait and tell them you’re separating when the change is imminent. Older children might sense that something is wrong and ask questions. Only tell them you’re divorcing when you are sure you have reached that point. If you are there, and they ask, be honest. Show them you can handle the difficult conversation and listen to their concerns. Be sensitive to their timetable – try not to start difficult conversations directly before exams, birthdays or times when one of you will be away.
If possible, do it with your ex-partner, and know in advance what you are both going to say. It’s often easiest to break the news at the weekend, ensuring that both of you are available for any questions your children might have. Present the news as a decision you both accept. The future co-parenting relationship will rely on a united front, so start as you mean to go on. Deal with any unresolved personal feelings in counselling, and not in front of the children. If you start talking about who’s decision it is, one of you will look weak, and the other will look like the decision maker. This is not a good long-term strategy for co-parenting.
It’s important that you frame the conversation in the right way. Don’t try and make it overly positive or present it as a great idea. Whatever relief you may be going through, your children are likely to see it differently at first. It’s OK to say that you are sad and it’s OK to cry (provided you stay in control). Blaming yourself and self-recrimination are not helpful. Try to help them accept that the end of marriage is a sad thing, not a bad thing. Divorce is a change and not the end of world. Go with their emotions; don’t try and change them. Feelings of sadness are expected, and its normal to feel sad after hearing this news.
The truth doesn’t mean sharing everything. The ins and outs of your relationship wouldn’t normally be a topic of conversation so they shouldn’t suddenly become one just because you are separating. The truth is, you are getting divorced. One of you may have wanted it first but you have both come to agree that it’s the best way forward for your family. Don’t pretend you are trialling living apart or give children false hope of a reconciliation. Be honest if you don’t know the answers to their questions. Don’t promise unrealistic things just because you’re finding this a tough conversation.
Stick to the facts and focus on the future. The children must process the news and this will take some time. You may need to repeat the conversation several times – particularly for small children. Try to preempt any questions you think they will ask – especially ‘Why?’ Have a short answer you both stick to and repeat it every time the why question is asked. Be very clear with children of all ages that this is not their fault. Nothing they have done or could have done would have changed anything – repeat this several times.
This will ensure that everyone hears the same thing and no one feels excluded. They may take comfort from each other. It’s fine to follow up with individual conversations with each child. This will help you answer specific concerns and help you give more age-appropriate reassurances.
A lot of parents feel they need to ‘be the rock’ in this situation. It’s OK to be emotional when you tell your children – after all, it is sad news. If you are upset in front of the children this will indicate to them that it’s OK for them to be sad, that this release is natural and necessary. Being angry or bad-mouthing your ex-partner is harmful. If you feel like you might react like this, seek advice so you can prepare properly and avoid any harm.
Your children may have a big reaction to the news or no reaction at all. Address how they are feeling and stay calm. They have heard what you’ve said and are trying to process it in their own way. Most reactions, however upsetting, are perfectly normal. If things don’t get better over time, this may indicate your child has got stuck in an emotional cycle of behaviour. Seek help if you’re worried – speak to a child counsellor or your GP.
For further support and advice on telling your children about your divorce, please get in touch with our partners at amicable.