What to Say (and Not to Say) to Your Children in a Divorce

What to Tell Your Children During a Divorce

No matter how tough you are, divorce is an emotional and financial roller coaster from start to finish.  You’ll face a number of challenges along the way, and one of the most difficult of these can be when you have to break the news to your children.

You may think divorce is especially challenging on children at a younger age, but the truth is that divorce carries an emotional wallop for children of any age, even after your kids are grown and have left the house.

How you break the news to your children will depend on a number of things, such as your relationship with them, the amount of turmoil in the home, their ages and the relationship you have with your spouse.  Although you may be engaged in a bitter war, now is the time to set those battles aside for the good of your children.

Develop a Strategy Ahead of Time

Unless children are very young, they are quite perceptive and may have an inkling that things are not good between mom and dad.  This doesn’t mean that you can just drop a divorce bomb on them willy-nilly when you feel like it.

To minimize the emotional trauma which will probably be significant, you and your spouse need to have a strategy in place ahead of time.

If possible, try to tell the kids together.  At a time when a family is breaking apart, this is one area when there can still be reassurances that a certain degree of unity will remain. Plan a time to tell the children all at the same time.  After the fact it may be necessary to spend some one-on-one time alone with each child, but initially, break the news to everyone at the same time.  This will avoid any burden of those who know having to keep the ‘secret’ from those who don’t know yet.

Plan what you’re going to say.  Chances are your children are either going to be the first or among the first of many people that you’re going to break the news to, so having a consistent, non-accusatory divorce story in place will make the process easier.  Some people are comfortable writing talking points or a script beforehand.  Others may want to meet with a child specialist or psychologist to help come up with the right messaging.

Keep your messages clear, simple and short.  Make sure the messages are age appropriate so there is no misunderstanding.  You may need to put it into a variety of formats if you’re dealing with children who have a wide variety of ages.

Try to pick a good time and place to break the news.  While there is never any real “good place” to tell your children, pick a place that is quiet and private.  Remember where you were on 9/11?  You will remember certain things in your life forever, and this is one thing your children will always put into context of when and where they were told for the rest of their lives as well.

Plan on dealing with a variety of emotions ranging from anger, profound sadness, numbness and other similar reactions.  Expect tears to flow, not just from the kids but from the both of you as well.  Understand that the messages you are delivering is just a starting point and that many more conversations will need to take place as you all process what is happening.

Be prepared to answer questions about what comes next, but don’t make promises that you can’t keep.  You will make a bad situation worse by undermining a child’s trust even more.  If you don’t have answers, it’s okay to say so at this point.

What to Say When You Break the News

Every mom and dad will express things differently, but here are some general guidelines to help you get through the difficult messages that you’ll need to deliver.

First, let your children know that the impending divorce is not their fault.  Some children may instinctively take it upon themselves to lay blame for their parents failed marriage at their own emotional doorstep.  Don’t let them even think about starting down this path.  Own up to your roles at the two people in the relationship and accept blame for the failure of the marriage.

Second, let your children know that you both still love them very much.  Under an emotional strain, displays and utterances of “I love you” may be very much in short supply prior to breaking the news.  Now, more than ever, you’ve got to be hyper-attentive and let your children see, feel, and hear that you love them.  It’s always good to let your actions speak just as loud, if not louder, than your words.

Third, let them know that collectively you are all still a family, but that things are going to be different moving forward.  Fathers and mothers will still be fathers and mothers, just in redefined roles.  Two different homes does not mean two different families.  You are bound by blood relations and that part will not change.  If siblings are involved, stress the need for brothers and sisters to step up and help each other when needed.

Fourth, keep in mind that less is more.  Do not get into the ugly details that led to your decision to divorce.  Keep your messaging high level, brief and straightforward.  Explain why this change is actually a good thing for the family, that it will remove conflict, anger and unhappiness.  Stress that this change will not be easy at times but that this change is necessary for the long-term happiness of everyone involved.

Fifth, encourage your children to ask questions, not only when their receiving the news for the first time, but at any point along the way.  Divorce may be foreign to you, but it is literally a mind-blowing experience for your progeny.

Keep it Age Appropriate

Keeping your messages age appropriate is not set in stone by the calendar age of your children.  Some children are more emotionally equipped and have personalities or a level of maturity to handle news about a divorce better than others.

The circumstances of your individual situation will also dictate how you navigate delivering age-appropriate messages.  So, how you speak to one child may need to be modified when speaking to another child who is the same age.

Based on a child’s age, here are some general guidelines to consider:

Birth to five years old.  The younger the child, the less likely they will be to grasp the concept of divorce.  They are not able to anticipate future situations or understand their feelings to any measurable degree.  When talking to younger children, you need to keep messages simple and concrete.  Let them know which parent is moving out, how often they will see that parent and who will be looking after the child.  Answer their questions with short and clear answers.

Six to eight years old.  Children are able to form full and complete thoughts and convey their feelings, although the finer points of divorce will still elude them.  As opposed to younger children, they are less egocentric about what’s going on in their world.  They are developing more relationships outside of the home between friends and school, and you will need to take into account how these relationships will impact their thinking.

Nine to eleven years old.  At this age, because their cognitive abilities are even more developed, children may be more judgmental and that could result in them assigning blame for the divorce.  You must be careful to not nurture this line of thinking when telling them the situation.  You might consider letting them read simple books about divorce as a means of helping them process what’s going on.  Relationships outside the family (friends, teachers, coaches) are more fully developed and become a greater factor in the child’s life and how they may relate to the news.

Twelve to fourteen years old.  Teens have a much more developed ability to understand divorce at this age.  Due to puberty, they may also have less emotional control which could lead to outbursts or fits of depression.  You must be more subtle in your approach and be prepared to answer complex questions.  Keep in mind that although they may be rebellious, they still need you and your emotional support as much as ever.

Fifteen to eighteen years old.  Their independence is growing stronger and they may try to hide emotions or retreat to friends much more readily.  This age can be tricky because teens of this age think they can be more independent than they really are.  Your messages need to reconfirm that the divorce is not their fault and that while they are older, you still unconditionally love them and always will.  Be sure to leave the door open to communication and above all else, don’t flash angrily at them or your current events or you will hasten the divide between you.

Children 18 years and older still need many of the same reassurances that younger children do.  Separate your anger and anxieties toward your spouse with the demands that your older child may still have.  Don’t assume that they can carry a full load yet.  Find ways to spend quality time with them to show that they are still important to you despite changing family dynamics and their own needs to be grown-ups.

What to Say to Your Children Going Forward

After you’ve broken the news, divorce is an ongoing conversation.  Sometimes it will be propelled by your child’s need for more information.  Other times, you will drive the conversation with actual changes that are taking place, whether it’s moving out of the family home, figuring out parenting time during a separation or any other number of big life changes.

Your child may be in denial or reluctant to talk about divorce, so when possible let the conversations evolve at their pace.  Just be available to them to provide constant reassurance and to set their minds at ease as much as possible.

As a parent, you need to understand that the primary factors that help children of all ages adjust to divorce are having a strong relationship with both parents when it’s wanted and needed; maintaining a good strong parenting stance by not letting guilt lead to bad parental decisions; and, minimal exposure to conflicts going forward.

These are easier said than done, but being aware that they are the keys to preventing more emotional damage and can be part of the child’s healing process should provide you with a starting point.

You have to cope with your own emotions, but as a good parent you also have a duty to try and help your children get through a divorce the best way possible as well.  It’s also easy to get tunnel vision on your own issues, so you need to make a conscious effort every chance you get to reach out to be a good parent the best way you can as often as you can.

While you’re dealing with lawyers, dividing assets, trying to figure out alimony, child care and child support among a myriad of many things, your children will also have their own set of challenges to deal with as well.  Children in school can be especially vulnerable to emotional swings and the cruel taunts of school mates and friends.

Because children have even less of a say in what happens than you do, they can suffer in a number of ways that may eventually cause depression, loss of identity and self-esteem, poor academic performance, withdrawing from their circles of friends, anger, and a host of other physical and emotional issues as they attempt to reconcile their new reality.

What you say and how you deal with your divorce when interacting with your children after the initial news wears off can have a profound impact on how they cope and rebound from such a traumatic experience.

Here are some ways you can promote healing in your children and things to avoid during and after a divorce takes place:

Bite your lip.  Under no circumstances should you badmouth your spouse in front of your children.  You may have to draw blood from biting down on your lip so hard to achieve this, but keep in mind that even though your relationship with your spouse is ending, your children’s relationship with both their parents still needs to remain intact.

When you say anything bad about your spouse, you automatically put your children in the middle, a move that could ultimately cause more resentment directed back at you as well as damaging a child’s self-esteem.  Vent your negative feelings to your close friends, adult family members or even a counselor, but do not put your children in this highly awkward position.

Children are not messengers.  Do not use your children as messengers to convey anything important to your spouse.  As hard as communication may be, you must do the right thing and reach out when something needs to be dealt with.  When you make a child a messenger, you also make them a part of the battle whether you realize it or not.

Don’t play the lonely card.  If you are already separated or divorced and you share custody with your spouse as you hopefully do, the last thing you need to do is lay a guilt trip on your child by telling them how lonely you’ll be after you say goodbye to them during an exchange.

When you do this, you make your feelings their problem.  As much as you may miss them, offloading your loneliness can really hit a child hard forcing them to deal with a set of complex emotions that are sure to manifest themselves in several ways.

Instead, tell your kids to be safe, that you love them, and that they should work hard in school, enjoy time with their mom (because it’s important that they do), and that you will do the same in your life until you see them again.

As bad as you may be feeling on the inside, you want to send your child off in a reasonably happy mood.  It’s better medicine for both of you.  Another benefit is that if your child shows up in a good mood at your spouse’s, she is less likely to come looking for you, and not in a good way.

Limit talk about the money.  Family finances are sure to be part of the upheaval in a divorce, but unless you’re talking about the pennies, nickels and dimes in your kid’s piggy bank, it’s absolutely a bad move to talk about heavy financial problems related to the divorce with your child.

If your children are older and money issues may impact their ability to pay for college or high school activities, then you need to have a frank discussion about what you can and cannot do.  It’s okay to say things have changed with family finances as a result of a divorce and that certain things just won’t be possible anymore.

But take as much of the emotion out of it as possible.  Don’t point fingers.  And don’t overextend yourself if you’re feeling guilty about depriving your children of things you used to give them prior to divorce.

If you can, try to present a united front with your spouse regarding expenditures.  What may have been automatic in the past, especially if you’re the one who was in control of the family finances, may require a discussion about expenditures now.

Showing a willingness to discuss matters with your spouse is actually a positive thing to do in setting a good example for everyone’s behavior going forward.  It’ also sends a message to a child that they won’t have much luck in playing one parent off against another…a favorite tactic of children in and out of marriage!

Every emotion is valid.  Your child will be overwhelmed at times and may suffer from feeling things they think they have no right to experience.  Being angry, depressed, sullen and withdrawn are all normal, and you need to let your children know these emotions are normal.

Don’t force the conversation but look for openings to have discussions about feelings.  Let your child know that every person reacts differently and that there is no wrong way to feel.  Share your feelings as well.  It helps when a child feels that they are not alone in how they are coping with such a dramatic change in their lives.

It’s okay to ask for help.  If your child is struggling, let them know that many people go to others for help.  A child who holds everything in, either because of guilt, fear or anger could do long-term damage to themselves and because they aren’t able to process intense feelings as easily as an adult, their thoughts may become irrational and self-destructive.

Depending on your family situation, talking through things with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, a pastor, a family friend or a therapist for much needed support can work wonders in diffusing a logjam of emotions.

We both love you.  Although many family dynamics are being completely rewritten when a divorce takes place, a child needs to hear early and often that he or she is loved by both parents.  Any relationship shortcomings between a husband a wife should be characterized that way.  Though living arrangements will change, love should remain unconditional and it’s vital that a child hear that.

Not only should you say “I love you,” but you should also help the healing process for your child by reinforcing that your spouse loves them too.  Let them know that love will manifest itself in different ways from each parent.  One may spend more time with a child than the other.  One spouse may spend more money on a child than the other.  Children will measure actions of two parents against each other and discussing different ways of showing love helps your child to grow and recover emotionally.

Listening is as critical as talking.  You need to have a dialog with your child.  Put aside any self-absorbed thinking and actually listen to what your child is telling you.  Ask questions.  Provide well thought out answers.  And above all else, it’s okay to open up and when you don’t know something, it’s also okay to say “I don’t know.”

Honesty breeds reassurance, even when you don’t have all the answers.  That also sets the foundation for a healthy long-term relationship with your child.

By listening, you can also ascertain if there are problems that might not otherwise be revealing themselves with the other parent.  Drug and alcohol abuse can be a common side effect of divorce, as can abusive language.  If you listen closely enough, there will be telltale signs that these things may be taking place.

Don’t disparage the other sex.  It’s easy to let your frustrations bubble over and if you don’t want to bash your spouse, you may inadvertently bash men or women in general.  “All men are cheaters,” or “All women are horrible with money,” can be just as damaging as pointing a finger of blame directly at your spouse.

Keep in mind that while your marriage may be on rocky terms or has ended, your child will imprint all the incidents and input they see and will use that in their own future relationships.

Making generalizations about men or women can only lead to potential hardships for a child in a future relationship down the road.

As an adjunct to this, be cautious if you use the phrase “you’re just like your mother or father,” when chatting with your child.  You may mean it in a good way, but when taken with all the other input a child has seen, it could be a backfiring statement that could cause more harm than anything else.

Think about the fact that you no longer want to be with your spouse, and if you tell a child that they are just like that person, they may think you no longer want to be with them as well.  It can put a child at risk of thinking they are in jeopardy of losing your love when there are otherwise no grounds for it.

Keep your own hopes and dreams alive.  Don’t let your divorce define your child’s life any more than it needs to.  Remind them that everyone goes through rough patches and that even though your relationship with your spouse is changing, your children are still the same amazing human beings they have always been.

They need to be reminded that there is a great future in front of them and that they should never stop dreaming, hoping, creating and working hard to achieve those dreams.  Kids have remarkable resilience and you can help make their rebound that much easier with good and positive reinforcement as much as possible.

Marriage is still cool.  Just because your own marriage didn’t end as well as you had hoped, you need to remind your children that marriage can be a wonderful thing and that not all marriages fail.  With the right person and with respect and hard work, marriage can still be the best thing to happen to two people.

Just like there are no guarantees in life, no two marriages are ever the same and your children should not be penalized for thinking that’s the case.

Looking for more tips to help you get through divorce? Here are a few of our favorite resources:

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