Break the news carefully: How to tell your kids you’re getting divorced

Mom, son and dad on park bench having a serious discussion

Breaking the news about a pending divorce can be hard for many parents. Others present the topic poorly, making it difficult for a child to process and cope with the news.

Some parents avoid the topic altogether, which isn’t healthy for the child either. If you’re unsure how to tell your kids you’re getting a divorce, the following insight from our family law firm and Tarrant County licensed family therapist Gina Galloway, Ph.D. may help.

Seek 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 or counselor 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, where a counselor can 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.

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 them through the process. 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.

When possible, break the news together

Presenting a united front is typically best when talking with children about divorce. Parents need to put their child’s needs first and leave their personal bitterness and animosity out of the conversation.

If possible, parents should also set aside time prior to “the talk” to agree on what they will say and who will say it. Sharing the news together also impresses on the child that mommy and daddy will be able to co-parent, work together as a team. It shows that they will be able to guide them in the days, weeks and years ahead.

Kids also need to know that the divorce isn’t their fault, and both parents should expressly take responsibility for 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.”

While Dr. Galloway believes telling the children together is ideal, she knows that option may not always be possible. Says Dr. Galloway, “Both parents need to 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, Dr. Galloway guides 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. The biggest thing I tell those parents is to be very careful to not put blame on the parent who is not present for that talk.

“That can really hurt the child’s relationship with the other parent, which can be damaging to the child’s wellbeing. It’s typically best for kiddos to have a positive relationship with both parents. Blaming can also backfire on the parent doing it because the child loves the other parent and doesn’t want to hear them being disparaged,” she says.

Dr. Galloway generally recommends 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

Kids need time to digest troubling news. Dr. Galloway recommends scheduling the conversation on a weekend or during summer vacation when the child doesn’t need to go to school the next day. It should also occur when the child doesn’t have other activities scheduled that they might need to run off to later on.

According to Dr. Galloway, “Every child processes information differently. Some kiddos 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. We 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 her understanding of the family environment, conversations she has with you and the child, as well as her years of experience helping families manage difficult situations.

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 Dr. Galloway explains, “With really little kids, a lot of them don’t know what divorce is. For those kids, we 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 kiddos, by the time they get to middle school age, they often have friends with divorced parents. So they understand what divorce is about. They know when parents are divorced they have two different places where they live. They go back and forth. So there doesn’t have to be as much detail about that. They do need you to listen to their concerns and 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.”

Again, Dr. Galloway believes the most important message that needs to come through regardless of age is: “We still love you. We are all still your family. Your family is just going to look different.”

You don’t need to face divorce alone

An experienced counselor or family therapist can walk you and your child through the process and provide the tools and resources you need to cope.

Parents who live near Dr. Galloway’s Keller, Texas practice—Galloway Counseling Center—can reach her office directly at (817) 932-3105. Dr. Galloway has been helping families as a licensed professional counselor for well over a decade and is frequently called upon by the family courts in Tarrant County to testify in divorce and child custody matters.

If you have questions about divorce and child custody in Texas, the Sisemore Law Firm is here to help. To schedule a confidential case review with our founder 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 shouldn’t be construed as legal or medical advice. Consult an attorney or mental health professional to find out what steps your family should take next.

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