Talking to your children about divorce is a difficult but necessary conversation. As a Walpole divorce attorney, I have seen some parents handle this issue gracefully, while others have not. This is not a chat parents want to have with our kids, but putting it off too long isn't a great idea either. This conversation deserves advanced planning. You should consider the maturity level of each child so the discussion is appropriate in terms of the information presented, and just as importantly, what is not said.
If feasible, both parents should cooperate to plan this conversation, even to the point of outlining the main points and preparing answers to anticipated questions, when the conversation will occur, and other details. Your divorce lawyer, divorce mediator, or mental health professional can provide you additional advice on this subject. When I'm working with couples as a divorce mediator, parents oftentimes seek my assistance in planning the conversation they will have their children. For parents that do take the time to plan this discussion, things go much more smoothly with the children.
Here are 10 tips for parents to consider before talking to their child or children about their divorce.
1) What to Say or Not to Say – Deciding what to tell your children really depends on their maturity level and personalities. Try to reach a balance between “TMI” (too much information) and leaving lots of issues up in the air. Kids are curious, so they will want to know how the divorce will impact their lives. It is also important that neither parent blames the other for the divorce, and there is no need to identify the parent initiating the divorce. Bite your tongue and remember this is about your children, not you or your spouse. Finally, resist the temptation to promise things that are not yet decided. Don't promise the children that they will not have to move unless you are 100% certain that's the case.
2) Let your kids know what they can expect. Related to the above, kids will be thinking about what this news means for them. Depending on their ages, children will worry about things like:
- Where will I live?
- Will I have to switch schools?
- Where will Mom and Dad live?
- Will I have time with both of my parents?
- Can I still see my friends?
- Will there be enough money?
3) Remind children the divorce is not their fault. Kids sometimes feel guilty, worrying they caused the divorce. Make sure they know this is about the adults, not anything they did. Reinforce to your children that they still have two parents who love them.
4) Explain to your kids that they will be alright, and that Mom and Dad will be OK also. It is fine to acknowledge to your child that you understand this is upsetting news. You can mention that it will be a process, and that may be some changes ahead. Besides worrying about themselves, children worry about their parents as well.
5) Ask your kids if they have any questions. Don't be surprised if there are none right away, or there might be a lot.
6) Let the kids know they can talk to either parent to talk or ask questions. Follow up with them periodically, but there is not a need to overdo it. Obviously, keep an eye out for any behavioral changes you observe in your children and don't hesitate to contact a counselor for help. It is probably a good idea to check in with your school counselor as well. Some schools have support programs for students whose parents are getting divorced or divorced.
7) WHY? – This innocent-enough question is a deceptively tricky one to answer; so much so that it deserves some special attention. As stated in our first tip, the goal here is to strike a balance. Don't go into sordid details. Best to answer with something such as “Sometimes grown-up's feelings change.” Certainly do not blame the other parent, even if you really want to. You can also acknowledge that although you do not love each other in the same way, you and your spouse still respect each other and you will remain involved parents. You could also mention that you have not been getting along for sometime, and that neither spouse is happy, and that this change is necessary for the family.
8) Have the conversation together. Unless there are safety concerns or other factors that make it impossible, having a unified front for this conversation is recommended. Talking to your children together for the initial divorce conversation sends a message that
9) Choose the time. Of course, there is not a good time for this talk, but try to select a “less-bad” time. If possible, avoid the night before an important test at school or another event, whether it is a game or a recital. A Friday could be a good idea, as the kids will have the weekend to start processing things before returning to school. I've worked with some couples in divorce mediation who scheduled the discussion just prior to a school vacation so the kids would have additional time to adjust. I suggest avoiding holidays, birthdays, etc. Another consideration is that if one parent is moving out, try to talk to your children beforehand.
10) Be flexible. No matter how much thought you put into this, it is difficult to know how a child may react. Do the best you can, and don't put too much pressure on yourself. There will be time for follow-up talks later.
Stephen McDonough is a Walpole divorce attorney and mediator, and the owner of Next Phase Legal LLC in Medfield, MA. Next Phase Legal serves clients throughout Massachusetts, including the Walpole, Norwood, Foxborough, Canton, Dedham, Westwood, Dover, Millis, Norfolk, and Medway, Massachusetts areas.