One of the most daunting tasks associated with a divorce with children is that of breaking the news. As with all discussion about the divorce now and in the future, loving consistency will be the most critical of the communication characteristics.
While emotions may be running high, your children will benefit from a calm conversation that gives them room to ask questions. Whether you are having this conversation with the children alone, or you are doing it together with your soon-to-be ex-spouse, it’s important to have a plan of what you are going to say before the conversation starts.
Breaking the News of a Divorce to Your Preschooler
Children who aren’t yet in elementary school don’t need too many details. A four-year-old is going to ask why you aren’t together anymore, repeatedly, without understanding the answer. To keep it simple:
- Provide a clear routine to your preschooler.
- Remind your child that you love them.
- Remember that you set the tone. If you’re calm, your children will pick up on your emotions.
The good thing about children is that they are resilient. While it was once thought that divorce was a devastating event that created lifelong difficulties, evidence has since suggested that children who are adequately supported during this time can actually become stronger, more resilient children than they were before. Children who are not adequately supported during a divorce or whose feeling of safety and security is thwarted by unresolved and unaddressed parental conflict are the children who are more adversely affected by their parents’ divorce.
Elementary Aged Children: Breaking the News of a Divorce
Children who have spent time in elementary school are often a bit more socially aware of family relationships than preschoolers, which may require more of an explanation when you tell them about your divorce. Here are a few techniques for communicating with early school-age children:
- Remain as calm as possible when having the discussion about your divorce.
This may seem to go without saying, but it’s important to consciously focus on communicating with a calm demeanor and tone; young children are hyper-aware and sensitive to the level of anxiety associated with potentially tense conversations.
- Balance controlled emotions with honest feelings.
If you need to wait until you are ready to talk to your child, give yourself time to get control of your emotions. However, keep in mind that showing your feelings isn’t necessarily a bad thing; control doesn’t mean a lack of emotion.
If you find yourself crying or otherwise visibly emotional, gently explain to your child that you are sad–and that being sad is okay. Often, seeing you be honest with your emotion gives them “permission” to also be sad.
The one thing to be conscious of is not allowing your child to feel that they need to comfort you. Remember that this conversation is about them; your emotions need to appear under control and not something they need to be anxious about. Explain to your children that, although you may feel sad, you know that the decision will be the best for your family. It can be a good opportunity to teach them about grief by embracing the feelings while focusing on and working toward the positive outcome on the horizon.
- Honesty Doesn’t Always Mean Transparency
The inquisitive child may ask a lot of questions in an attempt to wrap their head around the big, impending change. However, many questions can be answered with a similar response. Rather than explaining the intricacies of your reasoning, understand that their need for answers is borne out of a need for reassurance and security.
Keep in mind, too, that it’s common for emotionally overwhelmed adults to allow the mental chaos to take over the conversation. When left out of check, this can result in a rambling conversation that is misunderstood by small children. Keep your answers simple, short, and reassuring.
- Know, explain, and be excited about the new schedule.
It’s important to go into the initial conversation with a clear understanding of how the child’s schedule will be affected; uncertainty will only garner more feelings of uncertainty. As you communicate this new routine, make a concerted effort to be excited about the schedule. You will not be excited, of course, but put on your best face you can. Just as your children pick up on your sadness or stress, they will feed on your excitement or lack thereof. Find the good, new, or exciting parts of the change and draw attention to them.
- Start the new schedule immediately.
Often, parents feel the need to give the child “warning”, so they have time to wrap their heads around the idea of separation from one parent before it happens. This anticipation often causes only more anxiety, and children’s ability to deal with the change positively deteriorates as the time passes. Build a level of excitement for a new chapter, and allow that positivity to get you through the transition.
Just as they always have, your child will thrive with a predictable schedule; the quicker you can get their lives into the routine, the faster they will adjust.
Telling a Teenager About Your Divorce
Telling a teenager about your divorce can be a tricky task. Often, a teenager will already be aware of the problems and even suspect the impending change. However, even if you suspect that your perceptive teen already knows, it is imperative that you still take the time to sit down with them and explain it to them as if they didn’t. Here are some things to keep in mind through the conversation:
- Allow your teenager to ask questions and try to answer them honestly.
Tell them, and mean it, that they can ask or say what is on their mind. Promise that you will not get mad at them but that you will answer their questions as honestly as possible. Think about the questions or concerns they pose cautiously and attempt to see the situation from their perspective. Often, you’ll find that even angry emotions come from a place of feeling misunderstood or confused.
- Be true to yourself and your own boundaries.
Honesty should not require a level of transparency such that the questions lead you to a place of negativity, to talk negatively about their other parent, or place you in a position that makes you uncomfortable. By this point in their life, a teenager knows that you are human. It is okay to tell a teenage child that you either don’t know how you feel about something or that it is something you don’t feel ready to discuss.
Without putting the burden of your emotion on their shoulders, simply tell them that you are being true to your emotions. By respecting your own personal boundaries and need to heal, you’re teaching them a valuable lesson about grief, coping, and self-awareness.
- Remind them that the issues are between you and the other parent.
The fact is that, at times, having children can cause tension in a relationship. Be sensitive to their worries that, if it weren’t for having children, you and your soon-to-be ex would be happily married.
Emphasize that while the issues that caused the divorce are between you and their other parent and although the divorce will certainly affect them, the solution to these issues are going to be resolved by the adults.
Some teenagers will feel that they deserve a say in how things get resolved. Point out that their feelings are very important and that you intend to take their feelings into consideration when decisions are made, but the parents will make the final decision. You also might remind them that every decision made that affects them is intended to make you and them a happier, stronger people over time. It is okay to point out that you, their other parent and the children will have to learn together and there will be some mistakes, but in the end, everything is going to be OK.
- Discuss the parenting plan with your teenager.
While your teenager may say very little when talking about their immediate future, allowing them to have some input as to their new schedule may help them adjust more quickly and in a healthier manner. Teenager’s schedules can be difficult enough when their parents are married. Trying to keep your teenager active and engaged while trying to spend quality time with them will be a challenge during and after the divorce. Work hard not to put this added pressure on the child to ensure they are spending time with you and their other parent.
- Be consistent and clear.
As with younger children, be clear with your message and don’t waver back and forth. Be very cautious not to give your child hope that you and their other parent may be reconciling.
When Your Ex Isn’t Involved with the Children
If your ex simply takes off, is incarcerated, or wants nothing to do with the children, you will have to tell them on your own that you are getting a divorce. You are probably feeling a lot of emotions: anger, betrayal, sadness or bitterness, but try as hard as you can to remain as neutral as possible, reminding the children that the divorce is between you and your ex. Over time your child will make his or her own opinion about their other parent. If you put yourself in the middle of them forming this opinion, often times the situation will turn on you and the child will start to resent your negative comments about their other parent. Remember that your child is half you and half the other parent. When a parents disparage the other parent to the child, the child takes those comments as a comment about them. Allow your children to ask the questions that they have, and remind them that you are there to love them through it all.
Telling the Children Together
When you are both telling the children about your divorce together, keep the message simple. Both of you should be on the same page, telling the children you love them and that you will both do all that you can to keep their lives as normal as possible. Refrain from any blaming, and keep your tone as calm as possible. Your children will want to know that both of you can work together to keep them safe and taken care of. They will immediately want to know how their lives will be affected by the divorce, so have a basic plan ready to explain to them. Be ready to tell them where is mom going to live, where is dad going to live, who the child will live with primarily and how much will the child get to see each parent.
When the Divorce Isn’t Amicable
You may find yourself in the middle of a messy, combative divorce. If this is the case, here are some tips to make the process smoother:
- Refuse to engage in petty arguments.
- Keep communication about the children.
- Eliminate blame.
- Consult an attorney if you have legal questions.
- Don’t involve the children in divorce discussions or decisions.
- Stick to the custody plan.
A divorce can be very difficult when it isn’t amicable, so it’s important to take care of yourself and get the emotional support you need as you navigate this difficult time.
Read the whole eBook, Dealing with Divorce: A Co-Parent’s Guide for free.