The "Talk" – Discussing Divorce with Your Children

If you talk to children of divorced parents, many if not all of them can remember the day their parents told them they were getting a divorce. Even very young children can recall what they were wearing, who sat where, who said what, etc. For some, it was expected after years of fighting… for others it was a complete shock.

Typically, good parents do their homework before this important conversation and it should come as no surprise that in this Digital Age, most of this homework is done on the internet. Problem: The information available on the internet about what to tell (and sometimes more importantly what not to tell) your children when you are getting a divorce can be overwhelming.

For example:

Google “Effects of Divorce on Children,” and get 1,710,000 results.

“How to Talk to Your Children about Divorce” returns 32,400,000 results.

“What to Tell Your Children about Divorce” returns 32,200,000 results.

In an effort to assist my clients and alleviate some of the panic created by the enormous volume of information out there about this topic, I compiled the tips I think are the most helpful when discussing divorce with your children:

1. Prepare for the Conversation Together.
Try to put aside the hurt and anger you may be feeling, so that you can make decisions together about the details you’ll need to tell your children. Plan to meet and work through what you will tell your children ahead of time. If it’s extremely difficult to speak with one another, consider using the services of a family trained mediator, therapist, clergy or someone you both trust to help you work out the details.

2. Tell Your Children Together.
Set aside a time for a “family meeting.” By presenting this information together, you send your children the important message that you are capable of working together for their benefit.

3. A Healthy Expression of Emotion is Okay, Assigning Blame Isn’t.
“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” The manner in which you present this news to your children will, in large part, determine their reaction to the news. Expressing sadness over the changing dynamic of your family is to be expected. Expressing anger or engaging in a screaming match in front of your children (which may also be expected) is not in the best interest of your children. Avoid the tendency to assign blame or say whose “fault” this is. To the extent that you can, try to incorporate the word “we” when you’re explaining the decisions that have been made.

4. Children are Going to Ask, So You Are Going to Need to Be Prepared to Provide a General Reason for What is Happening.
It is not important, or even appropriate, that you provide specific details about why you are planning a divorce. (I also advise clients to keep this in mind when discussing their divorce with the general public… but that is an entirely separate article.) You should be prepared to give some type of general explanation.

5. To the Extent You Know, Provide Specific Details About the Changes Your Children Can Expect.
You can help your children to be prepared for future changes by being honest about what you know, and what you don’t know. In any event, you should let your children know that they do not need to worry because you love them and you (as the parents) are going to figure out an arrangement that works best for them.

6. Reassure the Children about Their Relationships with Both Parents.
Children need to be reassured that they are going to be able to maintain a quality relationship with both parents, even though they won’t be living under the same roof. Your children need to know that it is okay to love both of you. The feelings of guilt and conflicted loyalty that can be created in children of divorcing parents are serious issues that can cause life long damaging effects.

7. Reassure the Children the Divorce is Not Their Fault.
It is important to let your children know that nothing they did could have caused – or prevented – what is happening. Avoid making long-range promises about an uncertain future. Instead, stick with the assurances you can make for the present time.

8. Be Sensitive to Your Children’s Reaction to the News.
What you’re telling your children may be completely unexpected, and will most assuredly change their lives. Try to be as understanding of no reaction – which is a reaction – as you would be if the children were in tears or extremely angry. Your children may not know how to express their intense emotions appropriately, and it may be some time before they can articulate their feelings. Involving an objective ear, like a child psychologist, can provide an outlet for your children to talk about their feelings related to the divorce.

9. Welcome Their Questions.
Most likely, the children will have many questions. To the extent that you can, be honest and clear in your responses. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them that. Also, realize that this conversation will unfold in many parts. After you’ve told the children about the divorce or separation, expect to revisit the topic many times as new questions and concerns arise.

10. Give Them Time to Adjust to the News.
It will take time for your children to adjust to this news. It is a huge change, and while you may be confident in the hopeful future you envision for them, it will take some time for them to see that future play out. In the meantime, be patient with their needs and make the effort to be a steady presence in their lives.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and every situation and family calls for its own responses and strategies. You know your kids. Use your best judgment and keep your eyes on the prize: Children who weather a divorce with resilience and a sense of security.