Most of the time, once a couple decides to get a divorce, the children are not surprised to find out. It is very likely that their home life has been tense for a while and that fights have been ongoing between their parents. But even though they may suspect that their parents are having trouble, kids usually still hope it will not end in divorce.
To help ease children into the acceptance of the coming changes to their family life, it is a good idea for divorcing parents to sit down (together, if possible) with their kids to discuss in general terms what is going on. If they have not already been living separately, the parents should explain that they will soon be living apart and that other changes will begin happening as the family structure gradually shifts.
There are two aspects to explaining divorce to children: the initial conversation, and then ongoing follow-up to be sure they are processing and handling the matter appropriately.
What Do Kids Need to Hear?
It is extremely important to emphasize, both initially and in an ongoing dialogue, that both parents still love their children. Even though they may no longer be husband and wife, a couple will still remain loving and committed parents.
If the children ask why the parents are getting a divorce, they are likely to hear that their mother and father just don’t love each other anymore. It is not too far a jump for kids to then begin to reason that if their parents just decided one day that they no longer loved each other, they could very possibly also decide at some point that they no longer love their children. Kids will need ongoing reassurance from both parents that this is not going to happen.
It is also critical to let kids know that the divorce is not their fault in any way. Children by nature are self-centered. This is not a negative thing; it is quite normal. As a result, children of divorcing parents often feel that it is their fault their parents do not love each other anymore and blame themselves for the divorce. They may begin to believe that if they had kept their room clean or not hit their sister, their parents would still be together. It is important to explain that their parents’ separation is an adult thing that has nothing to do with the children.
They will also want to know how their world will be changing. Expect questions like: “What will happen to me?” “Will we have to move?” “Can I keep my dog?” “Can I stay in my room?”
It is important to reassure children where appropriate, but not to mislead them. If you know you are going to have to sell the house, do not tell them that they can stay in their bedroom. If you lie to them about how their life will be affected, their trust in you will be eroded in other areas. It is better to say something like, “We will probably have to move, but you will still have a nice bedroom in our new place. You can even help pick out the colors!”
How Much Information Is Enough?
While it is important to be honest with your children, they do not need to hear the gory details. Parents should not ask their kids questions that put them in the middle in any way. Kids should not be forced to take sides, nor should one parent bad-mouth the other. Parents also should not ask the kids for their opinion about major changes, such as where they should move.
Instead, parents should be candid with their children in an age-appropriate way, telling them enough to give them an understanding of the situation without burdening them with adult problems. Kids will be able to figure it out if their parents are not being honest. In response, parents should be open to hear and respond to all of the kids’ concerns.
If there are other complications in the divorce, such as adultery, one parent leaving suddenly, or a new step-parent or step-siblings, parents should use wisdom and caution in determining what information is age-appropriate to tell. It may be best to first only talk about the parents’ divorce and let that sink in. Once the children have a grasp on that fact, they may then be better prepared to learn about some of the other changes that will be happening in their lives.
While the kids will have to understand that due to a shift in family finances, expenses will need to be adjusted, they do not need to be burdened with too many details. You can explain in kids’ terms, for example, that while you may not be able to eat out at McDonald’s as often anymore or buy them a new wardrobe each year, they will always have food on the table and be able to wear good clothes.
Importance of Follow-Up
Parents should put a lot of thought into the how, where, and when of first talking to their kids about divorce. They should not just dump on them and then walk away. Even if children have suspected for a while that their parents may be divorcing, they may not be able to adequately process it once it begins. Parents may feel that the initial conversation went well, but then a week later the children may come to them with questions, or may begin acting out.
It may even be years before fallout from the divorce hits kids. Perhaps once they become teenagers and begin thinking about dating, insecurities about whether they will be able to have a successful relationship may crop up.
Parents must be aware that even if they handle the situation as delicately as possible, they still could have problems at any point in time with their children not being able to process or accept the divorce. They should not just look at the here and now; they must be observant of their kids’ emotional health going forward.
Helpful Resources for Children Living Through Divorce
One or both parents may feel devastated or pre-occupied themselves, and therefore not be in a good position to walk their kids through the situation. If parents do not feel capable of handling the task of talking their children through divorce on their own, there are plenty of resources they can turn to. They can ask a coach, teacher, clergy member, school counselor, therapist, or extended family to help. They can also ask a counselor for ideas about the best way to talk to their children.
It is important to let kids know there are resources available so they know where they can go if they are confused, angry, hurt, or experiencing some other difficult emotion. They should not have to worry that their mother or father might be upset if they talk to someone else about what they are feeling. They should also be assured that the people they talk to will not turn around and tell their parents everything that was said, so they can be honest and get the support they need.
There are many books available on this subject for both children and adults. (Some of them are listed on my website.) Massachusetts requires that all divorcees with kids under age 18 take a parent education workshop that offers many resources. There are also support groups and other online resources.
There are plenty of support groups for kids as well. A lot of schools have groups for children whose parents are going through divorce. Most kids want to fit in; they do not want to be different from their peers. It can be helpful for them to know they are not alone.
Preparing for a Healthy Future
Kids need two parents actively involved in their lives. If parents can put aside their differences long enough to maintain constructive communication and deal together with issues that will affect their children, the kids can survive a divorce and eventually grow into healthy adults who are in successful relationships.
Parents who use Mediation or Collaborative Practice can establish parenting plans that both of them feel are viable (even if they do not particularly like certain aspects of the agreement). They can also make sure they are left with a mechanism in place to adjust the agreement in the future if needed. With professional help, it is possible to establish communication techniques that can help to minimize controversy and tension in the future, which will help the children tremendously.