When you and your spouse have decided to divorce, your choices about the future will be more complicated if there are one or more children involved. One difficult but necessary step is when you have to sit the child down and tell them that you and your partner are separating.
To make the process run smoothly, it is best to be prepared before talking with your child. Take notes and practice what you will say. You will need to be ready to discuss with them the who, what, where, when, and why of the divorce.
Who should tell them?
If possible, have both parents meet with the child together to tell them about the divorce. It is best for both parents to try and maintain a united front. This will help give the child consistency and a feeling that their parents are still working together. It will also help assure them that they won’t have to worry about getting mixed messages from their parents.
In some cases, the divorce is contentious or one parent has abandoned the family. In these situations, only one parent is available to tell the child about the divorce. This parent should try to set aside their anger before talking to the child. Remember, the child does not know the details of the divorce. They still have some loyalty to the other parent. Trying to turn the child against their other parent or telling them too much information may lead to future resentment or additional issues.
What should they be told?
Several points need to be made and repeated to the child. The most important one is that the child is not to blame. Let them know that the decision to divorce is between the two adults. It is not about the child’s relationship with their parents. Again, remind the child that they have no fault or blame in the decision.
Another important thing to remind the child is that the divorce does not mean that the parents no longer love them. The divorce does not change how much the parents care for the child. Additionally, the child can love both parents the same without worrying or feeling disloyal to the other one.
Finally, the child needs to be told what the future plans are. You do not need to give them all of the details. However, it is helpful to give them information that deals with their stability including where the child will live and what their schedule with each parent will be.
Where should they be told?
Try to tell the child about the divorce in a location where they feel safe and comfortable. Usually, the best place to tell them is when they are calm and at home. They are likely to know something is already happening if one parent has moved out. Regardless, try to keep the environment calm and relaxed.
It may be helpful to let teachers and coaches know before you tell the child. They do not need to be told details. However, letting them know that the child will be dealing with their parent’s divorce may be helpful. This way they can be prepared for behavioral changes and the possibility of the child acting out.
When should they be told?
Do not have the divorce discussion with your child unless you and your former partner are 100% sure that this is what you want. If you and your former partner can be a united front, try to tell the child 2-3 weeks before any major changes take place. This includes new housing, new parenting schedules, and court dates.
If possible, tell them about the divorce at the beginning of the weekend when there are no plans. You want to make sure that there is time for them to process your words and ask questions if they have any. You don’t want this to be a casual ten-minute conversation that takes place before they head off to school or soccer practice.
How much should you share about the “why” of the divorce?
You do not need to tell your child every detail about what led to the end of the marriage. Keep the information honest but age-appropriate. Be prepared for questions but remember you do not have to answer everything. This is especially true if an answer would hurt the child’s feelings or could make them resent one parent.
Finally, make sure to leave the door open for more questions. The child will need time to process the information and may come up with additional things they want to know. It is best if they feel there is open communication between everyone. Depending on the child’s age, it may also be helpful to offer counseling to the child if they want someone to talk to about their feelings.