Learning how to tell children about the divorce is hard to do. There are few harder moments in parenthood than telling your kids that it’s over between mommy and daddy.
As a divorce attorney, I have seen hundreds of families struggle over how to break this news to their children. Knowing how to tell children about the divorce is critical. The process should involve calculated timing by the parents, a scripted statement explaining why it happened and a sketch of what is going to happen to the family in the future.
There is no use trying to avoid the issue: this part of the process is far worse than when you told your spouse that you wanted a divorce, mostly because the recipient of this pain is a child.
I would caution divorcing parents to be very careful about how they talk to their children about the “D” word. You might be sick and tired of your spouse, but you need to remember that you will be co-parents after the divorce. There will be dance recitals, football games, graduations and even marriages to attend. For the sake of your children, work together to share the news of your divorce with them. It is critical to know how to tell children about the divorce to help them deal with the change.
You could do irreparable damage to your children if you break the news to them without your spouse by your side. I have seen many couples attempt to use “the announcement” as a way to shift blame onto the other party. This often backfires, and many times traumatizes the children unnecessarily.
The way that a message is packaged sets the trajectory for how that message is received. Think before you speak. Remember your audience. Don’t use adult words or a message of blame or abandonment. Remember these simple tenants prior to blurting out, “your Dad is leaving Mom and is going to live with his f***ing girlfriend” or, “Mom doesn’t love you enough to try to make this marriage work.”
The following ten items outline a course for telling the kids in the least painful way possible.
Before you break the news…
1. Consult a child or family therapist together with your soon-to-be-ex to process the messaging.
2. Work together to write a script for the conversation with your child(ren).
3. Pick a time and place that is safe and that does not involve friends or relatives. Avoid conflict with important dates or deadlines i.e., child’s birthday or right before a big test.
During your discussion…
4. In your discussion, focus on the positives — that the child has two people who love her so much that they both want special time with her.
5. Focus on how things at home are going to stay as similar as possible.
6. Tell the child that it is not their fault — that mommy and daddy are just their best selves in two different houses, and that this will be the best way for them to do the best job loving her.
7. Do not blame. Make it appear as a joint decision.
8. Expect tears. You are not being mean; you are not kicking a puppy. Rather, you are being honest — and honesty can hurt.
After the discussion…
9. Expect more questions after your initial announcement. Answer them honestly but be mindful of the advice above (especially number 6 and number 7).
10. Avoid creating a sense of abandonment. If at all possible, try staying in the same home as your spouse on the night or day that you tell your child. Additionally, try scheduling a family dinner with the children and the other spouse at the new place once they have settled in.
Above all, put your child first. Remember: you can love your kids or hate your spouse… but you cannot do both.
Reviewing this outline will help you prepare how to tell children about the divorce in a way to minimize the harmful impact on them.