How to Break the News About Divorce to Your Children
If you are getting divorced, whether you are the leaver or the left behind, you are probably worried about your children. If you are the leaver, you are likely telling yourself that research shows that most kids can cope with a divorce. If you are the left behind, you are likely focusing on what could go wrong and how the emotional wounds can linger and affect the lives of everyone involved.
Both are right, most children learn to cope when parents are mature enough and mentally healthy enough to deal with the hurt. However, when parents are not able to focus on the wellbeing of the children and instead focus on themselves, those are the risk factors that can leave children scarred for life.
Conscious uncoupling is not always possible, and you might still be struggling with whether you have done the right thing. You might not be ready to accept the divorce, or you might be divorcing someone with narcissistic tendencies or abusive. But with the following tips, you should be able to focus on protecting your children and minimizing the hurt and pain that comes with the news of divorce and the transition that follows.
“Divorce opens up a great unknown. It is ominous and dangerous, and a child is invited, no, forced to plunge into its unknown depths.” (Dr. Archibald Hart, Helping Children Survive Divorce)
1. Prepare a script and break the news together
You might not be able to make the marriage work, but by drafting a developmentally appropriate script together (you might need professional and unbiased support), you are showing the children that the two of you are mature enough and still able to focus on them, hence both of you will still be available for them.
2. Connect with your child
Similar to the parents, children also go through the different emotional stages of divorce—they experience shock, denial, the need for negotiation, anger, and sadness before they can accept the finality of the divorce. Regressive behaviour is a sign that your child is struggling and needs extra attention.
If you feel that you cannot provide the emotional support your child needs, do not hesitate to reach out for help. Children of divorce need an emotionally safe environment, have someone listen to them empathetically and validate their feelings (not their behaviours) as well as help them understand their conflicting emotions.
As painful as divorce can be, assuring your child that it is okay to ask for help may be the best gift you can give to them in the long run. Some children need help to sail through the cycle of grief before they can accept the permanency of the divorce and adjust to their new families. Giving children a voice helps them express their worries and emotions.
3. Refrain from talking about the other parent
Complaining to your child about the other parent might give you comfort in the short run, but at what cost? If your child loves the other parent, they will start to question how they can love someone that treats their other parent so poorly. Children might not be the best judge but they do listen, especially in times of divorce, but it is the adults’ responsibility to protect their emotional wellbeing.
If you feel like you need to vent, talking to someone out of earshot from the children is the least harmful way of doing it. You cannot be sure that the other parent will do the same, but your job is to be the “good enough parent” to protect your child. If your child comes home and tells you negative comments from the other parent, you can simply say that those are adult matters and you will discuss them with the other parent. Explain to your child that you love them and will not drag them into adult matters.
Doing so, you are also setting yourself up as a role model of how your children should deal with conflict in the long run.
4. Focus on what will remain the same
Separation and divorce bring along a lot of changes the children will need to adjust to. Focusing on what remains the same provides stability, whether it comes to regular activities or their daily routine, and will help the children handle the changes more easily and feel secure.
5. Create a new routine
To help your child adjust to having two homes, create a routine that is similar to their old one. If possible, the routines in the two houses should be similar so the child can adapt more easily. Try to create routines that strengthen your connection, such as having dinner or breakfast together to encourage communication. Share your routine with the other parent and maybe create a visual calendar for younger children to make their daily lives more predictable and help them adjust to the new schedule.
Having fun: Consciously plan time to have fun with each child, so each one can spend quality time with you to do things they enjoy. Children share and talk about their feelings when they are relaxed. Try not to only talk about the divorce, you don’t want your child to feel that you are only spending time with him or her because of the divorce. Use this special playtime to connect with your child and make him or her feel how much you care.
6. Communication between the parents
Sharing information and pictures of the children is not about helping the other parent, it is to help your children have the other parent in their lives in a meaningful way. I have seen parents hoarding information and using it to punish the other parent. I have also seen situations where one parent shares information with the other parent and the other parent uses it to attack the first parent by bringing up trivial complaints to undermine the other’s parental competence.
If you feel that you and the other parent are not able to communicate effectively, seeking help early on can help avoid a lot of conflict generated by the legal system, and it can prevent further damage to your co-parenting relationship. Both of you will still need to learn new ways to communicate with each other in a business-like manner, respectfully and effectively.
I work with children and families to help them make a healthy transition during separation and divorce. My therapeutic session offers a safe place for children where can feel protected when their parents’ fear and anger are likely spilling over into their life. Seeing myself as a child advocate, I consider it my job to protect the well-being of the children I work with, and I do not hesitate to address issues that I sense are hurting the children.
Asking for help is never easy—be courageous. Together we can help your children adjust more easily and in less time. I am here to help you and the other parent develop a parenting partnership with clear and firm boundaries that support the emotional, economic, and physical needs of your children.
If you are considering using your children to get your ex-spouse back or gain the upper hand in finances, I will not be a good match for you and you will be disappointed in my work because in this regard our values would be vastly different.