How Do We Tell Our Children We Are Getting a Divorce?

by: Susan K. Campbell, Ph.D. | Website

How Do We Tell Our Children We Are Getting a Divorce?

How are we going to tell the children? The most common, and stress-filled questions I get from parents who are separating involve “who, what, where, when and how” information will be conveyed to their children that the family they have known is changing. Regardless of how the parents feel about the separation and possible divorce, in most circumstances, knowing the hurt their children are about to experience can be paralyzing. As a result, parents often delay the inevitable, sometimes continuing to live together in terrible tension until they feel like they have all the answers to the questions the children may have.

First, every situation is different. In some families, there is the presence of high conflict or family violence, or children with widely varying ages or cognitive abilities, or adult children who live outside the home. Each of these circumstances requires a unique and alternate approach. However, certain considerations are universally important:

  • Children need to feel that they can still count on you to take care of them. Conveying love for them, strength, and confidence is important. Young children, especially, will take their cues from the parents about how catastrophic the event will be. It doesn’t serve them to believe it will be catastrophic, so with empathy and self-control, without misrepresenting or minimizing anything, do your best to assure them that things will be different, but okay. Identifying sources of support – friends, family, and faith may be helpful as well.
  • Children need to feel free to love both parents, and not feel required to take sides. Absent a serious psychiatric issue that impacts safety, children do best long term if they have meaningful relationships with both parents. In many cases it’s helpful to consult with a therapist to talk through what you want to communicate. Especially if one party doesn’t want the divorce, it’s important to agree upon language that doesn’t create blame and division. Acknowledging out loud that you both love them, and know they love both of you, and that they will continue to spend time with both of you is important. Choosing to tell them together, using “we” to refer to yourselves as parents, is helpful in addressing both of these first two items.
  • Children are egocentric. Of paramount importance to them, regardless of their ages, is how they will be impacted personally. Will I have to move? Will I change schools? Who is going to pick me up from now on? Will we still be able to afford college? It’s likely you won’t yet have the answers to some of their questions. Answer the ones you can, and let them know that there are decisions about things that haven’t been made yet, but will be shared as things develop.
  • Children need to be children. Listen to their questions, and recognize they may not have any initially, or any they are ready to ask. Don’t burden them with details they haven’t asked for. Use good judgment in responding to those they do. Recognize you may get the same questions over and over, as they process the answers, and try to be patient.

There is no question that the conversation will be difficult, but preparing ahead, and choosing a calm time with sufficient space around it, will allow you to begin with greater confidence – and that is something the children need to see.

Dr. Susan Campbell is a licensed clinical psychologist and consultant with expertise in attachment, divorce, trauma, anxiety, and learning differences, with over 25 years of professional experience helping children, adults and families live well.