Family & Relationships

Divorce and Kids: What to Say

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Telling your kids you are getting a divorce is probably one of the hardest things you will have to do. There is never really a good time to tell your children this news. However, how you deal with your kids can determine how well they weather the process of divorce.

It’s a lot to process, even for adults. But kids are perceptive. So rather than whispering about divorce around them, actually talking to your kids can make all the difference. Use these following as a guide to soften the blow, give them ways to cope and help them understand what will happen next.

Timing is everything with divorce and kids.

Before you have the conversation, consider when and how you’ll tell your kids. For starters, make sure you have reached a final decision. Having children think about an ‘impending’ or ‘probable’ divorce is very stressful. Next, tell your children together. Agree to have a united front and set the tone that you can both work together. Finally, choose a time when you aren’t in a rush. Allow time to digest the news and have ample opportunity for them to ask questions.

For decades, researchers have filled volumes studying and analyzing the effects of divorce on children. One thing most people agree on: There's no perfect time to tell your kids that you're splitting up. When you do talk to them, they may feel incredibly hurt or confused, respond angrily, ask a lot of questions or even blame themselves to some degree. All of which is totally understandable.

Studies examining the children of divorce have found that most suffer a sense of loss and that the feelings can manifest in many different ways, depending on the childrens’ ages and unique personalities, as well as on how the parents handle the divorce. Children have no option in divorce and may feel completely out of control. So, when children experience such distress, they may display regressive or aggressive behavior.

Younger children may regress in areas such as sleeping and toilet training or throw more tantrums. School-age and teenage children of divorced parents may show symptoms of depression, rebel against discipline or change their eating and sleeping habits.

As a parent, you can take a proactive and empathetic role in easing your children's pain by addressing any negative feelings or behaviors — and by giving them ways to express their thoughts and frustrations.

If you have young children, your post-separation parenting will involve coordination and cooperation. It's a good idea to anticipate issues by spelling out guidelines and ground rules in a written parenting plan that goes beyond the cursory child custody terms that might have been spelled out in a divorce agreement.

Adult “kids” are still children of divorce, and even they sometimes face thorny emotional issues when their parents split, particularly concerning the changed relationship they will have with each parent. Just like younger kids, adult children often go through a sort of grieving process when parents divorce — complete with anger, confusion and despair.

Don't tell everything.

What you say and how much you share depends on the age of the children. I’m of the mindset that less information is best. Keep the reasoning simple and don’t badmouth one another. Details like who cheated or who started the whole process aren’t for children of any age. Older children may figure out what’s going on, but you don’t have to be the source of the intimate details.

My parents divorced when I was in high school. I knew that my father had cheated, but every time I went to broach the subject with my mother, all she would say was, “this isn’t a discussion for you.” End of story. She didn’t want to alter my relationship with my father even though he had hurt her. She was able to be the bigger person and put her love for me over her anger at him.

Keep free of venom. Don't express bitterness toward your ex — and don't in any way imply that your former spouse isn't a good parent or that your kids are wrong to want a relationship with them. Instead, continue to support and foster their relationship in every way you can so that the kids can be free of guilt and ambivalence.

Even years after the divorce, make sure you’re available to listen to your kids express their feelings whenever they want to talk. As they grow and develop, they may have questions, need new information or want to express differing perspectives. Depending on their ages and personalities, you may need to encourage them to continue talking about their feelings regarding the divorce.

What not to say

Three things never to tell your children:

  1. Never ask a child to take sides. They love you both and asking a child to choose will backfire on you later in life.
  2. Never ask your child to spy for you or eavesdrop and report back. This process is difficult enough without asking them to play private investigator.
  3. Never tell a child that the other parent doesn’t love them. This goes without explanation, but this could be one of the most damaging things you could ever do to a child.

There won’t be a great time or surefire way to deliver your plans to divorce to kids but you can focus on a few things to lessen the blow.

Present a unified front. Agree with your spouse (as much as you can) in advance on what you'll tell the kids — and stick to it. Tell them together, if possible.

Tell the truth. You owe it to your kids to keep it real. At the same time, your conversation should be kid-friendly for tender ears (younger kids don't need as much detail). No matter what, avoid overly long explanations. Pick something simple and honest, like "We can't get along anymore."

Remind them that you love and support them. It's a simple but powerful message. Most of all, reassure them that this has nothing to do with them.

Address changes. Be upfront. Tell them what might be changing (living arrangements, daily schedules and upcoming plans) and reassure them about the things that won’t change.

Avoid the blame game. There's a fine line between being honest and critical about your spouse. Keep it diplomatic for the sake of your kids. Any issues going on between you and your spouse should not be played out in front of your kids.

Don't forget to listen. Divorce can feel like a loss to a child. Help them grieve by encouraging them to share their sadness or frustration. Although you may not be able to fix it, inspire trust by simply showing you understand. Their mental health is important – and so is yours.

Reinforce what's staying the same.

Three important things to tell children of any age:

  1. Tell them you love them more than anything. Let them know that just because you are getting divorced, it has nothing to do with how much you love them.

    Be vigilant. Divorce is stressful for kids of any age. Even if your child has generally had a positive spin on things, keep an eye out for rough patches. Arrange for counseling or encourage your children to seek help if you see serious signs of emotional fragility.
  2. Let them know it’s not their fault. Some children may falsely believe that they have something to do with your divorce. Assure them that this is not the case.

    The single most important way that parents can help mitigate the negative effects is to have a cooperative relationship and keep conflicts to a minimum. Especially if your kids are still young, it's important to reassure them repeatedly that you both love them, that the divorce was not their fault and that they will always have two parents. It's also crucial to provide your kids with the practical information they'll want to know, like who will be driving them to school and where they will sleep.
  3. Reassure them that you aren’t leaving them. You can explain that while you might not see them every night anymore, it doesn’t mean you are leaving them.

For times as stressful as divorce, don’t try to go it alone – Legal Now can provide the help and peace of mind you need at an affordable rate. Our network of attorneys is available to all members not covered by legal insurance from an employer.

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