When To Tell Your Child You’re Getting a Divorce
As much as it may seem easier to avoid and delay telling your child you’re getting a divorce, you need to face this head on, sooner rather than later. Children pick up on what is going on around them and they know more than parents realize.
If you wait too long children are going to draw their own conclusions, often assuming they are the problem. Based on their developmental understanding of themselves and the world, if something feels wrong or a parent is absent without explanation, children assume they are at fault.
How To Tell Your Child About The Divorce
Agree ahead of time with your ex on a clear, consistent narrative using common language about the divorce that you are both comfortable with.
Divorce can be scary and disorienting for everyone. Center your conversation on empathy. Express empathy about how hard this big change is. Give them room to feel mad, upset, frustrated and just be there with them in those feelings. Validate their feelings before giving advice. In fact, keep any advice minimal in those initial conversations.
It is okay if you don’t have all the answers yet, center your narrative on what will not change – that they will continue to be loved, safe, and cared for. If your child is feeling loved and valued throughout this process, that will serve as a protective buffer from the stress of divorce.
Speak positively about one another. Children’s relationships with their parents powerfully shape their sense of self and their overall growth and development. As hard as it may be at times, you want your child to have a healthy relationship with both of you.
How you share this news should be adapted to each child’s developmental stage and emotional capacity. Use the age groups below as a rough guide, keeping your child’s developmental needs in mind.
Toddlers and preschoolers
As I shared in a recent HuffPost article, when talking with toddlers and preschoolers it is important to use clear, simple language. Toddlers and preschoolers are literal. Don’t try to soften the news with unclear words, half-truths, or metaphors. Use real words to talk about the actual things, like “divorce” instead of “going away”.
Elementary school-aged kids
With elementary school-aged children it is still important to use clear, direct language. But at this age, it is most important to listen, when they are ready to talk. Find out what perceptions they bring to the conversation. Ask them what they know about divorce. Have they heard the word before? Do they have friends that have divorced or separated parents? Perhaps they have seen it on TV. Hear their fears and concerns, clarify any misconceptions if you need to.
Kids over 10
No matter how old your child is, it is important to set appropriate boundaries. Don’t let adult problems become children’s problems.
Assure your child that you have people that will comfort and take care of you, that it is not their job.
Make it abundantly clear to your child that you want them to have a positive relationship with both of their parents.
Even when you have a close relationship with your child, there are certain conversations that should only happen with your friends. There is no need to complicate your children’s relationship with another parent by bringing your own complicated feelings into the mix.
If you have a child with developmental differences, consider using visual cues like pictures to support the conversation. Use social stories to outline what will stay the same and what will change. Prepare them well in advance for any changes to their routine, supporting the transition with a weekly calendar complete with images of which parent they will be with on which day.
For more advice on talking to your children about divorce, check out our Clinical Director, Ritamaria’s article with more tips on this important topic!