It’s a very hard, emotionally overwhelming, topic to discuss with your children, but it must be done. Here’s some professional advice on ways to break the divorce news to your kids.
Know the plan
“The most common mistake parents getting divorced make with their kids is to tell them about the divorce too soon,” says Dr. Jenn Mann, PhD, psychotherapist, and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. “Children should not be involved with the process, the decision-making, or the conflict.” Parents should only let their children know that they’re getting divorced until after they have already filed, found a new home for the parent who is moving out, have furnished it and have a concrete move-in date. “Not knowing what happens next or when is too anxiety-provoking for children. They need to be presented with a completed and specific plan.” Adds Dr. Mann: “It is best if the parents can be a unified front and tell the kids together without blaming one another. Also, if you have more than one child, it’s best to tell all the children together and then discuss age specific issues with children one-on-one. It’s not good for one child to have to hold a secret from their siblings until a parent tells other kids.
Watch kids extra close
After sharing your news with your child, pay attention to what your child says—or doesn’t say—and their behavior, says Frank J. Sileo, PhD, a Ridgewood, NJ-based psychologist. “With kids, behavior can speak louder than words. Although most kids adapt to the changes brought on by divorce, seeing a psychologist can help the children and the family as a whole through this difficult transition.” Adds Dr. Sileo: “If you notice your child is exhibiting crying periods, depression, anxiety, decreased school performance, a decreased interests in activities, and is acting out at home or school via tantrums or emotional outbursts, you may want to seek professional help (both individual and family therapy) to alleviate the pain, process feelings and thoughts, open up communication, and help prevent future problems.”
Consider contacting your child’s teacher
You may also want to inform educators at your child’s school about your divorce/separation. “Teachers can be helpful in reporting to you any change in the child’s behavior and academic performance,” says Dr. Sileo. “If you disclose, it puts any changes with your child into a context for the school and teachers can respond accordingly
Reassure your kids they’re not to blame
According to Dr. Sileo, it’s typical for kids to look for reasons why their parents are getting divorced. “They may think things like, ‘If I only behaved better…,’ ‘If I did better in school…,’ ‘If I didn’t argue with my brother all time…’ Parents need to repeatedly assure kids that the divorce is not their fault.” Frequent conversations and check-ins give kids the opportunity to share feelings and ask questions. “It shows them that their thoughts and feelings matter to you,” explains Dr. Sileo. “Kids are naturally egocentric and think that their thoughts or behavior cause events. Keep the communication door open.”
Don’t take their anger against you to heart
It’s normal for children to be angry and to look for someone to blame, says Dr. Mann. Normalize their feelings and do not take it personally. “Allow them to be hurt angry and disappointed without going into details or blaming about the end of the marriage. It’s ideal if both parents can take the position that it was a joint decision in
Acknowledge that kids are quite intuitive
Don’t be too surprised if your child already had an inkling you were getting divorced. Dr. Mann says kids absorb a lot of what goes on in the household plus consciously and unconsciously. “They often know a divorce is coming before it is announced to them.”
Choose your words wisely
If you’re getting divorced mainly because of an extramarital affair, Dr. Mann suggests leaving that detail out when it comes to the kids—at first. Here’s why: “Telling children about an affair only creates more angst for them; it creates a lot of anger and blaming. Children do not realize that these issues are complex. In addition, it sets them up to later either have affairs or else choose someone who will cheat on them. It’s better to protect them from this salacious, grown-up material.” Some couples do overcome this kind of blow:
Seek professional guidance
If you’re still not sure how to break the news to your child, consult with a relationship therapist. “If parents are contemplating divorce, speaking with a mental health professional can be helpful with getting advice on dealing with your child’s reactions and how, when and what to say to them given their ages and developmental stages,” says Dr. Sileo. “If parents are having problems and divorce may be imminent, leave the kids home (while you’re at therapy) until a plan is in place. Parents should go to therapy alone.