Breaking the news about a pending divorce can be hard for many parents. Some parents avoid the topic altogether, which isn’t healthy for the child. Others present the topic poorly, making it difficult for a child to process and cope with the news. Telling kids about divorce is something parents shouldn’t take lightly. In fact, it’s something parents should prepare for carefully, and whenever possible, both parents should be involved in deciding how and when to deliver the news.
If you’re unsure how to tell your kids you’re getting a divorce or how to tell kids about separation, consider the following tips from our family law firm.
Before telling kids about divorce, consider seeking guidance from a mental health professional
At our divorce practice in Fort Worth, the Sisemore Law Firm strongly encourages clients with children to work with a family therapist, counselor or member of the clergy during the divorce and child custody process. From a legal perspective, your divorce attorney can explain what you absolutely should and should not reveal to your child, whereas a counselor can best explain how to tell your children you are getting a divorce and show you how to speak with your child and when.
Every child is different, and a therapist can help you figure out what to expect and what boundaries you shouldn’t cross based on your unique situation. He or she can also explain the different approaches to breaking the news based on age, because how to tell a toddler about divorce is much different than how to explain divorce to a child who is a grade schooler, pre-teen or teen.
A variety of questions come up that are very specific to each case and child. That’s why we encourage clients to see a good counselor, let the counselor meet with the child and walk through the process together. You’re going to get some crazy questions you can’t anticipate or learn about online. Parents need training on how to appropriately handle their unique situations, and an experienced counselor can help ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible.
When possible, break the news together
Presenting a united front is typically best when telling kids about divorce. Parents need to put their children’s needs first and leave their personal bitterness and animosity out of the conversation. Sharing the news together also impresses on the child that mommy and daddy will be able to co-parent, work together as a team and guide them in the days, weeks and years ahead.
If possible, parents should also set aside time prior to “the talk” to agree on what they will say, who will say it and when. Prior to telling your child you are getting a divorce, make a list of possible questions your child may ask and decide—together if possible—how you as co-parents will respond. Again, a counselor can provide guidance on what to expect and how to respond but nobody knows your child better than you do.
Unfortunately, many children blame themselves when they find out their parents are getting a divorce. Kids need to know that the divorce isn’t their fault, and both parents should verbalize that fact and expressly take responsibility for their role in the situation. Reassurance is key, so it’s important to stress, “We both love you very much, and even though things will change, we will still be a family.”
This isn’t the time to play the blame game. In fact, it’s never a good time to play the blame game before, during or after a divorce. Children should not be forced to bear witness to any animosity or hostility their parents have toward each other. You may not realize it, but most children view themselves as half of one parent and half of the other parent. If you spew hate on or about the other parent, the child may feel like you are spewing hate on them as well.
How to tell your child you are divorcing when the other parent can’t or won’t be involved
While the family therapists we work with generally believe that telling the children together is ideal, there are situations where that option may not be possible. Ideally, both parents should be involved but you do have parents who don’t want to be a part of that conversation. In some cases, their actions show it—they’re having an affair and left the home to be with that person or they have just completely abandoned everybody temporarily. Other times, you have a parent who just doesn’t want to be the bad guy and refuses to talk about what’s going on.
In those situations, a family therapist can guide the parent responsible for breaking the news on best steps to take. If one parent absolutely just won’t be involved, then the other parent’s going to need to speak with the kids solo. Again, one of the biggest thing parents need to be very careful about is to resist the temptation to put blame on the parent who is not present for that talk.
Placing blame on the other parent can really hurt the child’s relationship with that parent, which can be damaging to the child’s wellbeing. It’s typically best for children to have a positive relationship with both parents. Blaming can also backfire on the parent doing it because the child most likely loves the other parent deeply, and won’t want to hear him or her being disparaged.
The family therapists our law firm works with generally recommend the “solo parent” conversations go something like this:
Child: “Why isn’t mommy here?”
Dad: “I wish she could be here for this talk with you but right now it’s just me. This is what we’ve decided is happening in our family. We don’t know exactly what everything is going to look like. We’re working that out but we both love you very much.”
Keep in mind that every situation is unique. You should work with your own counselor to come up with a strategy that works best for your family.
Have “the talk” on an appropriate day and time
When to tell kids about divorce is just as important as how to tell your kids you’re getting a divorce. You don’t want to broach the subject on the way to school or right before you drop your child off at summer camp. Kids need time to digest troubling news, and they need their parents close by to answer questions and provide reassurance that everything is going to be OK.
Most family therapists we know recommend scheduling the conversation on a weekend or during summer vacation when the child doesn’t need to go to school. It should also occur when the child doesn’t have other activities scheduled that they might need to run off to later that day or a big event, birthday party or ball game that weekend.
Every child processes information differently. Some children just need a little time to really let it sink in, and then they may start asking questions. Other kids may have questions right away. That’s why it’s important to make sure there is time available to process and discuss. You don’t want them rushing off to bed and then have trouble sleeping. So, picking the right time and having that talk in an environment that feels safe to them—preferably at home—is typically best.
Present information in an age and personality appropriate fashion
This is where a family counselor can really save the day. A counselor can guide you on how to engage with your child based on his or her understanding of the family environment, conversations he/she has with you and the child, as well as his/her years of experience helping families manage difficult situations.
When it comes to telling kids about divorce, you should keep in mind that children process information much differently at age 5 than they do at age 15. In addition, every child is a unique being. A pre-teen who is sensitive and introverted will react to upsetting news differently than one who is confident and extroverted.
As far as really little kids are concerned, most of them don’t even know what divorce is. For those kids, it’s typically best to talk more in terms of facts and what’s really going to happen. Something along the lines of, “Daddy’s going to have a different house. You’re going to have a room over at daddy’s house, and you’re going to have a room over at mommy’s house, your same room. And you’ll get to spend time with both mommy and daddy.”
With older children, by the time they get to middle school age, they often have friends with divorced parents. In fact, it isn’t unusual for children of middle school age to understand what divorce is all about. They usually know if their parents get divorced, they will be living in two different places, and they will be going back and forth between the two. Parents generally don’t need to share as much detail about that aspect of things.
Once you have delivered the news, it’s important to allow time for the kids to ask questions and share how they feel if they want to. Children need you to listen to their concerns, and you should do your best to answer their questions. A counselor can advise you on what information is and is not OK to share and how to respond to the tough questions.
During these difficult conversations, parents need to do their best to say things that will help their kids feel safe and secure. You want to make it crystal clear that mom and dad will always have their backs. The most important message that needs to come through regardless of age is: “We still love you. We are all still your family. Our family is just going to look a little different.”
Once you break the news, be mindful of your child’s actions and needs
No matter how well the divorce conversation goes, many children will feel insecure and have difficulty coping as the divorce progresses. That’s why it’s crucial for parents to be vigilant about putting the children first and demonstrating their love and support through their actions. As a parent going through divorce, some steps to consider taking, include:
1). Show up when you promise to.
Once temporary visitation orders are established, it’s important to abide by those orders as closely as possible. Not only will that put you in a good light as far as the judge is concerned, your child needs consistency and reliability right now. When parents continually show up late, try to reschedule or cancel plans it can be confusing and stressful for a child. Some children even blame themselves when mom or dad don’t show up for scheduled visitation or special events.
2). Make it easy to keep an open dialogue.
As noted earlier, most children—especially older ones—will have questions about the divorce, which may pop up at any stage of the divorce process. Make a point to regularly check in with your kids regarding how they are doing, and involve the other parent when appropriate and possible. Don’t assume everything is OK or that they will automatically bring something up without you asking them first.
3). Keep an eye out for signs of distress and act promptly.
Many children act out or show signs of emotional distress when their parents are going through a divorce. If your child starts behaving differently or a teacher brings behavioral issues to your attention, it’s crucial to address those issues as soon as possible. Sometimes just sitting down with the child and calmly talking through what’s been going on and how they feel can be a good first step. Scheduling time for your child to speak with a counselor can also be helpful if you can’t resolve issues on your own. A counselor can help the child sort through their feelings and guide them on how to cope.
4). Always be civil to the other parent when the kids are present.
We mentioned it earlier in this article but can’t stress enough how vital it is to not argue with your ex in front of your children or put them in the middle. Parents need to keep their disagreements between themselves and resolve any legal issues through their attorneys via mediation or in court. When they don’t, the children usually pay the biggest price.
Judges encourage parents to communicate about the needs of their child. If at all possible, try to keep an open line of communication between you and your ex for the purposes of coparenting. Although communications can be limited, knowing you are putting your child over personal animosity will go far with the judge and beyond litigation.
5). Express your love for your child often.
While your child may seem “fine,” now is not the time to step off the gas when it comes to providing reinforcement and nurturing. Along with being present and reliable, most children need the security that only a hug and an “I love you” can provide. Spending time and engaging in activities you can enjoy together can also help reinforce the bond between you and your child.
You don’t need to face divorce alone
If you need professional guidance on how to tell your child you are getting a divorce, please know that help is readily available. An experienced counselor, family therapist or member of the clergy can help walk you and your child through the process and provide the tools and resources you need to cope. Your family law attorney can provide options for family counselors in your area, should you need recommendations.
If you have questions about divorce and child custody in Texas, and you live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area, the Sisemore Law Firm is here to help. To schedule a confidential case review with our founder attorney Justin Sisemore, contact our Fort Worth law office at (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.
The information above is general in nature and should not be construed as legal or medical advice. Consult an attorney or mental health professional to find out what steps your family should take next.