The right way to tell your children you are getting a divorce
In the HBO series Divorce, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Frances and Thomas Haden Church’s Robert are, obviously, getting a divorce. Although they no longer live together, they have struggled with how to tell their children. Their first plan, to tell them in a restaurant, fails as Robert appears unwilling to actually share the news. Finally, they sit down with the children at the kitchen table and tell them. But the children are not surprised; they tell their parents it was obvious. They have already come to terms with the situation and do not ask any questions.
What did they do wrong? Everything, according to the experts.
“You don’t want to make an announcement on a holiday or in public that could ruin that holiday or location for the rest of their lives,” explains Dr. Samantha Rodman, aka Dr. Psych Mom. Her book How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce (Adams Media, 2015) details the best ways to handle this situation. “Ideally, you should tell the children together about a week before a parent moves out. If it’s a month in advance, it just creates anxiety.”
Telling your children as soon as the initial details have been decided is key. Unless they are very young, they will recognize that something is happening between their parents, and though they may not understand or identify the exact situation, they will sense that something is different or more stressful.
“Even if you think you are being discreet and only fighting behind closed doors or Mommy only cries in the bathroom, they know,” says Karen Kipnes, an attorney and certified divorce mediator who has worked with adoptions and child abuse, also serving as a guardian ad litem. “If you do not tell them soon, they will begin to imagine something that is worse than real life.”
Be very clear and direct with what you say, regardless of the children’s age. Simply telling children that you are living apart may confuse them, so it is important to be honest and use the word divorce as soon as possible. If they are too young to know what that word means, then explain it to them. Providing children with the proper words and information will help them better process the situation.
It is also very important that you and your spouse work together to provide a unified message for the children. That means that two of you will need to put your differences aside and sit down together to talk to your children. No matter how tense your relationship may be, you should send the message to your children that you both love them and will continue to work together to put their needs first. During this conversation, you should present a plan regarding how their lives will and won’t change. The goal is to have as little change to their routines as possible. For younger children, this means their spending time with each of you. For older children, it means their continuing to participate in activities and spend time with their friends.
If your spouse will not cooperate, then you will have to do it alone. It is still very important to have that conversation. “You will still explain it similarly,” advises Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York–Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute. “You should say, ‘We are getting a divorce, and I know this is hard. I am sorry this is happening. I love you and will always love you, and that will remain unchanged. Your father will love you and that will remain unchanged. But we don’t love each other in a way that we can continue to have a healthy marriage. However, that will not change our parenting relationship with you.’ Even if you don’t have buy-in or help from your spouse, all you can do is really control yourself. There is the temptation to have retribution or say he’s doing wrong by you, but it’s really better for you and better for them to say that he loves you and that will not change, we are just not able to get along and stay married.”
All experts caution against bad-mouthing your spouse to your children. No matter the situation, stay positive about the other parent. “It can be tempting to tell your kids the real reason for the divorce, but it is not a good thing,” Kipnes warns. “You don’t want your kids to hate your former spouse. You want them to have a good relationship with both parents. By telling them the details, that would be pitting your children against your spouse. No matter how tempting it is to bash your spouse, it will come back to haunt you.”
Saltz agrees. “Your children need good parents,” she says. “If you are bad-mouthing your spouse, then you are harming their ability to feel good about the other parent. You set up a conflict for the children who want to love the other parent. In some circumstances, is it completely possible that the children will align themselves with you and completely alienate the other parent? It is. But that’s not good for your children. Is it also possible that they are going to alienate you and side with the other parent? It is. And that’s not good for them, either. It can go either way, but you are setting up a conflict for your children when you say the other parent is bad. It’s not healthy for them or your relationship with them.”
After you have completed the initial talk, allow your children to ask questions. “You want to be respectful of your children’s feelings and let them know that you are available to talk and answer any questions they may have,” recommends Rodman. “You should also have follow-up questions that you ask them throughout the divorce. Ask them how they are feeling and how they are doing. Ask them if they’ve told their friends. They could be embarrassed to tell their friends, as this is a sensitive topic.”
Some children will handle divorce well and continue to speak with you about their feelings, but others may need help. Look for red flags, such as regressed behavior, high anxiety, sleep disruption, a change in appetite, a drop in grades, pulling away from friends, movement toward alcohol and drugs, or high irritability. These are warning signs that your child may need some intervention. Seeking professional help may be necessary to help your child get through this process.
Throughout the divorce, remain open and honest about the situation, and continue to refrain from criticizing the other parent. Speak to your children in an age-appropriate manner, maintain a consistent routine, and demonstrate that, regardless of the situation, you still love them and they are your priority.
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ESME’s Gia Miller is a Solo Mom to a nine-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy. She writes about health and wellness, parenting, divorce, food, and general lifestyle. Her work has been featured in online publications including the Washington Post, Healthline, Paste, Headspace, and more.
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