Editor’s Note: This is a sensitive & difficult topic. I’m currently attempting to have these discussions in my own home, now that my children are older. So I reached out to my friend & counsellor Cindy Reid.
You and your spouse have done your best, but you can’t put your relationship back together. Once you’ve made the decision, the first question is usually how do we tell the kids?
How do you tell the kids?
There’s no easy answer. No matter what you say or don’t say, your kids will be hurt, angry, and confused.
They may think it’s their fault. They may think that the parent who is leaving doesn’t love them, or that they will never see them again. They may be relieved that they won’t have to listen to the constant fighting. They may be worried about how, where, and with whom they will live.
It’s going to be a difficult conversation, but there are things you can do to make it easier.
Keep it age appropriate.
Obviously you will need to keep your child’s developmental level in mind. Kids under the age of 10 will always think that whatever happens is their fault. They may believe that if they’d been more obedient or cried less, Daddy wouldn’t be leaving. If at any point they thought I wish Daddy would just go away, they may believe that their wish made it happen.
Kids this age need the bare minimum of information.
Tell them which parent is leaving and which parent they will live with (or if you’re splitting the week). Reassure them that both parents still love them and that they will be able to see and talk to the parent who is leaving (if that is true). Encourage them to ask questions, but don’t give them more than they are asking for.
Tell them specifically that this is not happening because they were bad, and that there is nothing they could have done to stop it. Also tell them that you know there may have been a time when they wished for one parent to leave, but that didn’t make it happen either.
Every child has had those thoughts at one time or another, but they are not likely to admit it. They need to be told that their wishes did not cause this.
They don’t need to know the details.
Kids between 10 and 13 are beginning to understand that sometimes the things that happen have nothing to do with them. They are past the age of magical thinking and are able to accept the fact that they didn’t cause the divorce.
However, they’re not ready to hear about adult issues and don’t need to know all of the reasons Mom and Dad can’t get along.
As with younger kids, it’s best to start with the basics and let them ask questions.
They may wonder if you will ever get back together. If you don’t think so, it’s best to be up front about that now rather than giving false hope. If there’s a possibility, tell them that you are going to try, but that you can’t promise it will happen.
Above all, be honest. Lying to spare their feelings will backfire on you in the long run.
Don’t give them more than they can handle.
Teens think they’re grownups and will probably want to know all of the issues behind the breakup. This is where you have to know your kid and decide how much they can handle.
It’s OK to tell them that some things are private and need to stay between you and your ex, but explain as much as you can. If you are unnecessarily vague, they may imagine something that’s far worse than what’s actually happening.
Odds are they are more aware of what’s been going on than you realize and will know if you aren’t being honest.
Be prepared to take the blame.
No matter their age, the majority of kids will blame Mom for the divorce. In most cases, Mom is the one who changed. She is usually the one who tried to make changes in the marriage and was “mean” to Dad.
If he had an affair, she drove him to it. If she did, then she didn’t love Dad anyway. They will be angry and may say some hurtful things. Take a deep breath and realize that they aren’t mature enough to understand the issues.
Whatever you do, don’t trash talk your ex.
He is still their parent and they deserve to have a relationship with him. Tell them that you both made mistakes and you both regret the divorce. If you need to vent (and you will), do not do it within earshot of your children.
Do not deny your ex access to his kids unless there is a legitimate reason that will stand up in court, and do not force your kids to act as go-betweens. These things do unbelievable damage to young hearts.
You are the adult. Act like it.
Above all, don’t assume this conversation is one and done.
As your kids mature, they are likely to have questions that didn’t come up initially. Make sure they know that it’s OK to talk about it anytime.
My youngest son was 13 when his dad and I divorced. When he was 17, he suddenly wanted to know things that he hadn’t been ready for 4 years prior. He knew he could ask, and we were able to clear up some issues he hadn’t understood back then.
Remember that some kids may not ask.
Be alert for signs that your child is wondering about why you all can’t live together. Do they seem upset when they return from spending time with their other parent? Do they not talk, at all, about what happens there? Do they talk about how unhappy Dad is? If your child is under 10, what happens when they are asked to draw a picture of their family or where they live?
If you think your child might want to talk:
Try to gently draw them out. “It seems like you might have some questions about me and your dad. I want you to know that we can talk about it anytime and you can ask me anything.”
When your child does open up, listen carefully.
Try to discern the issue behind the question. It may be a simple request for facts, but it may also be that she is overwhelmed by constantly moving between two houses or is worried that one of you has started to date. Whatever it is, keep your feelings out of it. This is about your child, not you.
It’s never easy.
Divorce is never easy, but as with every other crisis, the way you approach it can make it better or worse. Honest, ongoing conversation will help you and your children navigate this change in the healthiest way possible.
Difficult conversations like this are always challenging. How do you handle them with your kids?
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