Breaking the news to your children is as hard as deciding to end your marriage. It’s delicate and painful no matter how old the kids are—and each age group presents its challenges—but explaining a very adult decision to a young person takes special care and preparation.
Here are 9+ tips from the experts on how to tell your young child—toddler through school age—that you’re getting a divorce.
- Get out ahead of the news. First and foremost, be sure your child hears about your divorce directly from you—not from someone else or because they overheard you talking about it. Although you may dread this painful conversation, once you know you’re moving forward with your separation, it is crucial to inform your children.
- Do it together. Divorce is a very stressful and emotional time for you as a couple. Nevertheless, it would help if you sat down as a family with both parents present for your child’s sake because it shows your child that you are still co-parents, working together as a team to care for them.
- Make Plans. This pivotal conversation will be a “flashbulb moment” that your child will never forget; how you approach it sets the tone for moving forward as a family in a new form. Don’t blurt it out on impulse or in a heated moment. Mindfully choose a calm and comfortable place to be uninterrupted without rush or external pressures. Avoid school mornings, bedtimes, holidays, special occasions, and chaotic periods.
- Consider your child’s developmental stage. Babies and toddlers are entirely dependent on you. They’re not yet able to understand feelings and complex situations. They can’t grasp abstract concepts like time or the future; they must still understand cause and effect. Their knowledge of the world is filtered entirely through their own experience. Preschoolers are beginning to develop more independence and some understanding of feelings (their own and other peoples’), but they cannot express or discuss emotions. They’re still “self-centered” in how they experience things. School-aged children have some independence and relationships outside the family. They are more able to understand and talk about emotions but still have a limited understanding of grown-up problems and events and may tend to see things in black and white.
- Prepare what to say and stay on script. With little ones, it’s best to stick to the basics; don’t overwhelm them with information. Agree on a “we” narrative that avoids blame. Explain, as simply as possible, why you must separate. (Ex: We have decided living in different houses is better.) Talk about what will change and what will stay the same. Above all, focus on reassurance and support.
- Reassure. Explain to your child that the divorce is not their fault; nothing they did caused it, and they could not have prevented it. Emphasize above all that you both love them very much, and nothing will ever change that.
- Listen. Your child may have a lot of questions. (Who will take me to school? Where will the dog live?) Be prepared with simple, truthful answers. Be honest about what is decided and what’s still being worked out. Invite questions but don’t press—remember, this is the first conversation of many.
- Expect any response—or none. Every child will process the news in their way. Some get upset, showing anger, sadness, fear, or guilt; others don’t exhibit much emotion immediately, which is normal. Acknowledge and validate their feelings. Stay calm, but don’t worry if you show some emotion—it’s alright to let kids see that this is not easy; sharing your feelings can free them to feel and express their own. Again, comfort and support your child, letting them know that it won’t be easy, but you will all get through this, and it will be okay.
- DOs and DON’Ts
- Don’t bad mouth the other parent. Stay positive, avoid blame, and focus on the parent-child relationship.
- Do anchor your child in routine. Maintaining a regular daily schedule, bedtime, school, activities, contact with friends and extended family, and so forth can provide stability. In a time of upheaval, it’s essential to be consistent with things that matter in their world.
- Do share logistics (decided) that will offer some security. (Ex: Mommy will stay in this house, and Daddy will live a few blocks away).
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep. For example, don’t say you’ll live in the current house if you must move to an apartment.
- Don’t discuss finances with the kids.
- Do show affection. Hugs, holding hands, and staying close to your child can provide powerful comfort and assurance that your love for them is unchanged.
You can get through this, parents. The skilled and compassionate family lawyers at SFLG are here to support and guide you through the logistics of the dissolution process so you can focus on your family.
By Debra Schoenberg