Tips for Telling Your Children Your Marriage Is Over
One of the hardest parts of divorce is figuring out how to tell your children that their parents are ending their marriage. The way it is handled has about as much impact as the news itself.
Over the years of mediating divorces I have gathered many ideas from books and discussions with my clients on this subject. While I am not a therapist or parent specialist, many professionals I have spoken with endorse the concepts below. Of course, you know your family better than anyone, so use these ideas as a guide and customize them for your family’s needs and dynamics.
Tell the News Together as a Family
It is essential that Mom and Dad tell the children together and as a family. When one child “knows” something first, it is a big burden for the child to carry the secret. Also, letting Mom or Dad share the news separately leads to confusion and mixed messages and may sound like one parent is shaming or blaming the other.
- Plan where and when you will share the news and stick to it. Avoid public places and try to find a time when the family might otherwise be together. Meal time is actually a good time.
- Parents often ask when is a good time to share the news is. When the air in your home is getting polluted (tense), the kids have anxiety. To be respectful and honest, sharing sooner than later is important and eases the anxiety. Often it is a relief for the parents as well.
- It is often helpful to have both parents in the home together for a reasonable period of time after telling the children. That way both parents can be available to answer spontaneous questions, and there is time to process the children’s reactions.
How to Begin the Divorce Discussion with the Children
With very little prologue, get the children’s attention by saying something like: “We have something we want to share with you.”
Almost nothing matters more than preparing beforehand to be able to say the following: “Your Mother (Father) and I both agree that we would be a better family if we lived separately, and we are making plans to do that.”
No question that is the hardest sentence to say. Yet saying “We both agree” sets the stage for your kids to be reassured that you are still Mom and Dad.
One parent may resist the notion of “we both agree” because he/she may not on the same page about why the marriage is ending. The WHY is not what you are both agreeing to. What is honest and true is that you agree to live separately, and that is what you are communicating.
- Imagine in advance the children’s reactions. If one child might run from the room, plan how you both will react. Have a shared response to avoid arguing “in the moment.”
- Avoid having a child hijack the conversation or try to prevent the family from hearing the news together.
- If they ask whether you are getting a divorce, let them know that “divorce” is a legal term. What matters to the family is that you will be living separately, and that this marriage is over.
- Clarity is reassuring. While parents may think it is kinder to leave the kids with some hope that this is just a trial and you are not sure what will happen, generally that is not useful. A “maybe” message puts kids in limbo. Then they will begin to calibrate your every move and hope and wish that they had some power to influence your decision. Often they end up mad at both of you.
- Reassure the children regarding important details, if you know them. What’s going to happen to the house, how are they going to see both parents, and are they staying in the same school are their top three questions. It’s OK to say: “We’re working on the details. Here’s what we know now.”
It’s not a Secret
When you tell your kids, you also need to be prepared to tell the wider world of your decision. You need to give them permission that they can share this decision with anyone. Like you, they need their own support system to process this information. When kids are asked to hold secrets it converts to shameful feelings. Secrets = Shame.
If they are younger, you may ask if they want you to share it with certain parents of their friends. If they are older, they might ask “who else knows” out of fear of being embarrassed that they were not among the first to know.
It’s Not Your Fault
Children, especially under the age of 10, often cannot differentiate between their world and the larger world. Younger kids see the world through a lens of magic, wishes, and power. If a dish breaks in the kitchen, they might think they influenced that.
It is quite possible that the children heard their name(s) when you and your spouse were quarreling. Whether your words were about logistics, homework, or babysitting, younger children connect their name with the conflict, and they conclude it must be their fault.
- Children get a fault “virus” in their “computer.” A good way to delete the virus is to say repeatedly–for months and even years, if necessary–how much they are loved by both parents.
- While older children are generally more capable of understanding that the state of their parents’ relationship is separate from their own actions, they also need reassurance.
Follow-Up to the Divorce Discussion
Once you have shared the news, answered most questions, avoided any gory details, and have definitely not thrown either parent “under the bus,” the children will likely go their separate ways. Consider planning a family activity to occur within 20 to 30 minutes of the end of this conversation.
- Make sure that no one is isolating themselves. Plan an activity that involves some connection, such as going for ice cream, getting pizza, bowling, ice skating, miniature golf, pumpkin/apple picking, etc.
- Show your kids by your actions that you can and will still be Mom and Dad.
- Let the conversation go where the kids take it without an agenda to further explain your situation.
Avoid “Band-Aid” Answers
When kids follow up with questions, it’s hard to hear sadness and grief in their voices, especially after one parent moves out.
Imagine your daughter crying and saying: “I miss Daddy, I want him to put me to bed!” Your first instinct might be to say, “Don’t worry, you’ll see Daddy tomorrow.” While reassurance is a natural response, consider exploring her feelings by saying something else, like: “I’m guessing it’s really hard not seeing Daddy every day. What’s the hardest part for you?”
This is an important moment of empathy that allows her to share more of her feelings and feel that you are connecting with her sadness. She may actually share more of her concerns. Maybe she’s worried that Daddy is all alone or has no one to eat dinner with.
Whatever she shares, keep building on it, and, as I often alert my clients, let her “bleed” a little. If you rush to put a “band-aid” on her feelings, those worries go inside and become stressful and perhaps even shameful.
Setting the Stage, Being Role Models
In my post about the “three-legged stool”, I talk about how honesty, courage, and resiliency are the qualities that will see you and your children through the weeks and months ahead.
How you and the other parent handle the divorce process has at least as much impact on your children as the divorce itself, maybe more. Those three tools are key to this discussion with your children and to building better futures for all of you.
- Post: Mommy and Daddy Don’t Live Together Anymore
- Book: Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce by Joanne Pedro-Carroll
- Book: Vicki Lansky’s Divorce Book for Parents: Helping Your Children Cope with Divorce and Its Aftermath by Vicki Lansky.
- Book: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg. It is a primer on empathy, on how to hold other people’s feelings without trying to fix, or change, or even comfort them.
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