Telling your kids you’re getting divorced is one of those “flashbulb memories” of life they’re apt to remember for years in stunning detail.
The surest way to get it right?
At the very moment you’re feeling more emotionally raw and physically drained than ever…force yourself to think like a kid.
Your kids have one overriding concern: themselves. They’re thinking, What does this mean for MY life???
Hold that thought in your head and heart. They will personalize the news. They will react in ways that might dumbfound you. And they’re entitled. They’re kids.
Keeping a child’s-eye-view in mind at this rocky, sensitive time can make a huge difference in how things go now, and later.
Kids want to hear: “We love you, and you’re safe.”
All kids crave love and security. But when news of divorce shakes their foundational center, those themes need repeating out loud. Often.
“One of kids’ worst fears is that their parents will get divorced,” says marriage and family therapist Jean McBride, author of Talking to Children About Divorce: A Parent’s Guide to Healthy Communication at Each Stage of Divorce. “Even the word scares them, like the bogeyman coming.”
How to say it: “Our family is changing but not ending,” she offers. “You’ll always have both of us. And we’ll always love you very much. Even though now there will be two homes, we’ll make it as easy as possible for you.”
“The challenge is that parents don’t always believe this themselves,” says McBride, who has specialized in divorce counseling for nearly 30 years in Fort Collins, Colorado. Parents’ own feelings of fear, discouragement, helplessness, and being overwhelmed can grind them down. But protecting kids from conflict and cultivating hope—reassuring them that everything will work out all right—lays down a solid emotional floor for them that’s linked to healthier outcomes, she says.
Her advice: “Fake it ’til you make it.”
Kids want to hear: “Here’s what this means for your everyday life.”
Hammer out as many specifics as you can (even if they’re temporary) before telling your child about the divorce, so when you break the news—ideally together, in a private place—you can supply concrete answers.
Kids of all ages want to know about their home and routines. Younger ones fixate on everyday care. (“Who will take me to school? Who will tuck me in?”) Preteens and teens laser in on how this news will affect their school and social lives. “They see divorce as a huge disruption to their lives,” McBride told me.
How to say it: Be matter-of-fact and honest. Specifically, kids want to know things like:
- Who will take care of me?
- Where will I live?
- Where will Mom live? Where will Dad live?
- Where will my pet live?
- Will I go to the same school?
- When will I see Mom? When will I see Dad?
- Will I still see my same friends?
Although some parts of their focus might seem selfish and even off the point, it’s all developmentally normal, McBride says.
Kids want to hear: “You are in no way the reason for this.”
When psychologist JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, author of Putting Children First, surveyed 7- and 8-year-olds in a support group about what the hardest part of their parents’ divorce was for them, 79 percent said, “I worry that family problems are my fault.” That compared to only 29 percent who worried, “Sometimes I don’t feel like I have a family.”
“Children can be very concrete. If they hear a parent say things out of anger or hurt like ‘You spend all your time with the kids and have no time for me!’ or ‘You’re ruining our family!’ they can’t make the nuanced leaps we do. They interpret it as ‘my fault,'” McBride says. Even something that happened coincidentally to news of the divorce—a bad report card, breaking a toy—can get conflated in a child’s mind. (“If only I hadn’t done that….”)
How to say it: Most experts advise against going into the gnarly reasons for the divorce with children. At the same time, you can’t say often enough that the divorce is not about them.
Explain the divorce in age-appropriate terms: “Daddy and I haven’t been getting along well lately. We have some adult problems we haven’t been able to fix even though we’ve tried.” Or to an older child: “You’ve probably noticed we’ve been arguing a lot lately. We can’t seem to agree on much any more, except one thing, that we love you with all our hearts. This isn’t anyone’s fault, especially not yours. It’s a problem we’re having.”
Kids want to hear: “I’m listening to you.”
“Preoccupied” is an understatement for a parent grappling with the emotional and practical tsunami of a divorce. If your kid seems okay, it can seem like one less thing to worry about.
But kids need extra attention.They often tell counselors that they feel “invisible” to their distracted parents. Some show it by becoming quiet and withdrawn. Others act out in a bid for attention that can seem like one more headache when you least need it. Still others insist, “I’m fine” if asked, whether they are or not.
Pretty much all reactions are reminders that they need more of us, not less, right now.
How to say it: Ask and listen. Nonjudgmental phrases encourage opening up: “Tell me more.” “What was that like?” Schedule 1:1 time with each child. Even a few minutes without devices or other distractions helps kids feel valued and visible. To find time, McBride suggests rotating who gets to stay up a little later with you or parent-child lunch dates.
You also show attention by enforcing rules and curfews, and staying on top of activities and homework. Yes, deep down they like this. It makes a kid feel attended to and secure.
Kids want to hear: “I’m okay. We’ll all be okay.”
Even if you’re laid low by a separation, kids need parents to rise to the occasion of being the grown-ups. Seeing parents cry, fume, or become paralyzed by depression is frightening. Details about dating or money belong to the realm of therapists or friends. Kids don’t want to have to worry about parents; it’s our job to worry about them.
How to say it: Actions speak louder than words here because kids are such keen observers. Model as much calm and forward-facing hope as you can. Vent safely to friends away from home. If you struggle with sadness, seek out a licensed therapist or a divorce support group, McBride says—if not for yourself, then for your child’s sake.
Kids want to hear: “Nobody’s going to make you choose.”
Therapists call it the “loyalty bind.” It’s when kids feel uncomfortable, as if they’re being disloyal, by spending time or being happy with one parent instead of the other. Kids feel it most in contentious divorces when they feel placed in the middle.
Research by Heather Westberg on announcing a divorce to kids shows that when parents both take responsibility for the end of the marriage, kids are less likely to feel they caused it—or that they have to take sides with one parent or the other.
How to say it: Use phrases like “your dad and I” or “we both” often when discussing divorce plans. Even if you have discord, emphasize the united points instead. Give your child permission to feel close to the other parent: “You sound mad about your mom. You should talk to her about whatever’s bothering you. She’s your mom, and she loves you.”
Avoid saying or asking things that make kids feel caught in the middle, such as “Oh, I’ll miss you so much when you’re at Dad’s house!” or “So what did Mom say to you about that?” To absolve kids from having to make choices, keep custodial time as non-negotiable as toothbrushing.
Kids also love hearing family stories that give their lives a context and let them know you respect the other parent, like “We were so happy when you were born” or “I know you’re very important to him.”
Nice words can be hard to muster when things are rancorous. “Divorcing parents don’t want to do these things. They just want out,” McBride says. “But your kids are not out.”
Kids want to hear: “Whatever you’re feeling, it’s okay.”
Whether your child is sad, angry, resentful, or even a little relieved, it’s okay. Kids need to sense that it’s normal to have strong feelings and that it’s safe to express them to you, no matter what they are. And you should remember that those emotions, and their intensity, are likely to ebb and flow. As Mister Rogers famously said, “What is mentionable is manageable.”
How to say it: To ferret out fears, ask things like “What worries you most?” Then the tricky part: Don’t rush in to react. Just play back your child’s words: “You’re worried about what will happen to the dog. I understand.”
Even if your child says something like “Divorce sucks, and I hate you!” that’s a legit feeling. Instead of being hurt or chastising, listen to the feeling behind the words and play it back: “Divorce is hard. And you sound mad that you have to go back and forth between two homes.”
To defuse the common “magical thinking” of parents reuniting, avoid letting hope grow, which is actually more harmful than kind. McBride suggests something like this: “It sounds like you wish that would happen and that would make you happy, but it’s not going to happen.”
Don’t overlook the body language of a big hug.
Kids want…good parenting.
“This isn’t just one conversation. It’s a series of mini-conversations,” McBride says.
Getting through the divorce transition takes an average of 1 to 3 years, she adds.
Divorce is a trauma for kids, no doubt. And being emotionally present to relate on their level is how we help them heal, she says. “We have to keep doing repair work with kids about all kinds of things, from something that happened on the playground to an incident with a teacher or friends. That helps kids feel safe and loved after divorce. It’s just good parenting.”