Divorce is tough for everyone, whatever the circumstances. You might have grown up dreaming of growing old with your soul mate or living your best life as a single person. But nobody dreams of the day they’ll walk into a courtroom ready to argue about custody and child support with someone they used to share a bed with. And if you have kids, divorce is even harder — because it’s not all about you and your ex. Your children may be even more affected by your divorce than you are because it isn’t their choice, and they’re too young to understand the complexities of adult relationships. So how do you talk to your kids about divorce? How do you explain to them everything they need to know — without overloading them and while absolutely emphasizing that none of this is their fault?
Telling your kids you’re getting divorced is potentially one of the most difficult conversations of your life. But by sticking to a few basic ground rules, you can make it a little easier.
Tell the truth
You may be tempted to sugarcoat things for your kids, but it’s important to be honest — even about the harsh truths. “Children are incredibly resilient and thrive when we engage in honest, age-appropriate conversations,” counselor Dr. Ajita Robinson tells SheKnows. Parents often fear the conversation because they simply don’t know what to say. Robinson recommends keeping it really simple. “Divorce is between adults,” she says. “So stick to the facts. For example, you might say something like, ‘There are some changes in our family that we wanted to talk to you about. We’ve decided to divorce, which means we will not live together anymore.'”
Be prepared for your child to get upset. “Divorce is a type of loss and can trigger a grief response for everyone involved,” says Robinson. But it’s crucial that you resist the temptation to lessen their pain by giving them false hope that you’ll get back together. All this does is delay the healing process.
As soon as you’ve broken the news, reassure your kids that they are in no way responsible for the divorce. Tell them that your love for them is not changing in any way. And be prepared to reinforce this over and over throughout the time it takes them to come to terms with your decision.
You can provide further reassurance by letting your kids know what to expect from a different family life than what they’re used to. “Kids need structure,” says Robinson. Tell them what will change and what will stay the same. If they know who will pick them up from school, who will take them to their activities, when they’ll see their extended family on both sides and where they will spend weekends, they can get a sense of how much their lives will change on an everyday basis. The more practical concerns you can address, the more secure they will feel.
Don’t play the blame game
One of the hardest things about helping your kids get through your divorce is keeping your feelings about your ex to yourself. This is particularly difficult if your ex cheated on you or betrayed your trust in some other way. But involving the kids in those issues can have long-lasting negative effects on them, their relationships with both parents and even their own future relationships.
“In the absence of abuse, kids have a right to have healthy, loving relationships with both parents,” says Robinson. “It’s so important to not speak poorly of the other parent to the child or have children be messengers between parents.”
It’s not always possible to present a united front, but if you can both be present for the conversation, your child knows that even though the family is changing, you will both always show up for them.
Make it age-appropriate
Obviously, the way you talk to a preschooler about divorce will be very different from how you talk to a teenager about it. Older or more mature kids will have a greater understanding of divorce and may have spoken about family issues to their peers. If you have more than one child at different maturity levels, you may wish to talk to them separately, licensed marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec tells SheKnows. Consider how they have handled important information or upsetting news in the past before deciding how much detail to give them about the circumstances leading to your decision to divorce.
Be prepared for ongoing conversations
Don’t plan on just one conversation about divorce. This is a life-changing experience for your child that they might want — and should be encouraged — to discuss at different stages throughout their childhood and adolescence. “Be open to several little conversations over time,” says Krawiec.
On the other hand, your kid might not necessarily want to have those conversations with you all the time. “Sometimes, it helps a child to talk to someone besides a parent — like a teacher, grandparent, counselor or therapist,” psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish tells SheKnows. In that case, it’s your job to reassure your child that this is OK and that they haven’t hurt your feelings. “Give your child permission to have powerful emotions about the huge disruption in her life and encourage them to express those feelings — to whomever they wish,” says Walfish.
Divorce is a hugely difficult life transition. Robinson recommends having a good support system in place to help you navigate the emotional, legal and psychological aspects of divorce so you are your best self — and aren’t tempted to vent to your child.