Children are at the center of any divorce, and including them – establishing custody, parenting time, and support are often parents’ top priorities. But how much should your kids know about what’s happening? Figuring out when and how to tell your children you’re getting a divorce can be difficult. It can depend on your kids’ ages and circumstances.
Plan to Tell Your Children You’re Getting a Divorce Together
You may want nothing more to do with your spouse. But that person probably means as much to your children as you do. Unless it is unsafe to do so, work with your spouse to create a plan for how you will address the divorce with your children. Having a consistent message and presenting the issue in terms of “we” rather than “your father” or “your mother” will help avoid confusion. A divorce coach can help you plan what to say. Then, if possible, sit down all together to tell your children you’re getting a divorce.
Choose a Time with Plenty of Time to Process
Don’t surprise your children with the news you are getting divorced. Do everything you can to avoid blurting it out while angry or mentioning it while you are running out the door. Instead, choose a time – possibly on the weekend – when you have time to sit with your kids and answer their questions or to let them go away and process the news without impending deadlines.
Tailor Your Explanation to Your Children’s Ages
How you tell your children you’re getting a divorce will depend on their ages:
Young children – up to about age 5 – see the world in very concrete terms. They are naturally focused on their own needs and desires. Be sure you cover where the child will live, who will care for them, and how it affects daily activities like bedtimes and meals. Provide reassurance and tell them you both love them, then address their questions honestly.
As children get older, they begin to have a more abstract understanding of divorce and more independence from their parents. But school-aged children also sometimes blend fantasy and reality. This could make them believe they can bring you and your spouse back together and see the divorce as somehow their fault. So be clear and concrete about what is certain – that Mom is moving out or that Dad will see them on weekends – and don’t promise anything that is not yet decided.
Pre-Teens and Teenagers
Older children don’t have the same reliance on their parents. They have more access to other adults and friends and a better grasp of what divorce means. Teens, especially, are more likely to assign blame for the divorce. It is important not to disparage or say negative things about your spouse around your pre-teens and teens. Make sure their relationship with both parents remains healthy.
Check In and Give Permission for Emotional Reactions
Telling your children that you’re getting divorced is not a one-time event. Kids need time to process the change and to come to grips with their emotions. If they are angry, sad, or afraid, acknowledge those emotions and tell them it is okay to feel that way. If they seem withdrawn or unresponsive, check in daily to see how they are feeling or if they have questions. You may also consider hiring a child therapist to give them a safe person to share their feelings with within a safe setting.
Emphasize: This Is Not Your Children’s Fault
No matter how old your children are, make it a point to tell them your divorce was an adult decision you and your spouse made and that it is not your children’s fault. Be transparent with them about what you know is sure and be honest about what you don’t know yet. By focusing on the future, you can help your children avoid blaming themselves for the end of your relationship.
At Thacker Sleight, our experienced family law attorneys can help guide you through talking to your children about the divorce process and connect you with coaches and therapists who can help. Contact us at 616.888.3810 to schedule a consultation. We will be there with and for you every step of the way.