If you and your partner have decided that your relationship has reached an end, one of your biggest concerns may be how to talk to your children about what’s happening, and how they’ll react. Will they understand what’s going on? Will they be upset? How will they adapt to the changes that will inevitably come with the separation? These are all understandable questions to be asking yourself.
Depending on your children’s ages, it might be hard for them to grasp the concept of separation or divorce and how it will impact them. To help you describe what’s happening in an accessible way while remaining sensitive to their distinct needs, we’ve put together these five helpful tips for initiating the conversation.
Even though you and your partner are separating, you’re still a team when it comes to your kids. It is especially important to keep this in mind as you navigate the early stages of the separation or divorce process, when children might be scared that they are losing a parent or will have to “pick sides.” By showing a united front, you and your co-parenting partner (CPP) are creating a foundation of stability and consistency. Presenting the news as a team indicates that neither of you is going anywhere and you’ll always be there for them. Your child is free to process the situation without worrying about mixed messages, feeling pressure to mediate conflict between adults, or determining who is the “good guy” and the “bad guy.”
Going forward, adopt the same team-based approach to any major life changes, conflicts, or events, such as school-related matters, health concerns, birthdays, family get-togethers, and sports competitions.
The bottom line: It is important to emphasize that both parents will continue to be involved in their lives and will communicate and work together as CPPs, if not as life partners.
Your children don’t need to know all the details about why you are separating or getting divorced. It is not appropriate to discuss the nature of the separation with your kids beyond acknowledging that both parents tried to work through their differences, but ultimately decided it was best to be apart. By sharing the “truth” behind what happened, you are potentially asking your child to decide where their loyalty lies. You also might be negatively affecting their perspective of your CPP, which can keep them from developing the healthy relationship with both parents that is crucial for their social, emotional, and cognitive development. Discuss the language you’ll use with your CPP ahead of time, keep your tone neutral, and resist any urge or pressure from your children to attribute blame.
The bottom line: Make sure you keep any drama and fighting off the table when talking to your children. Leave any feelings you have about your CPP or the separation to discuss with a friend, therapist, or other confidant.
Kids need to know that showing emotion during times of divorce and separation is normal, and that it is okay to be angry, sad, confused, or any number of feelings. It is also important to recognize that every child is different, and some kids might be less expressive than others. Rather than pushing your child to “open up,” make sure they know that you and your CPP are ready to listen and offer support if they choose to share. If your children do share their feelings with you, focus on validating their emotions rather than attempting to “fix” it or make it better.
As a parent, it is okay to acknowledge that you have feelings too, but avoid placing the emotional burden on your children. Instead, find healthy outlets and identify the kinds of support that meet your emotional needs outside of your immediate family.
The bottom line: Help your child understand that the family is moving forward together, just in a new way, and that everyone will respond and feel differently—and that is okay.
Your child may be anxious about the initial uncertainty of the divorce or separation and how it will affect their life. Kids might wonder about shifts in living arrangements, school, friends, and other aspects that are central to their daily routine. The separation represents a huge change to their world and might be seen as threatening the things that shape their identity. It is important to acknowledge the uncertainty and changes that lie ahead and avoid downplaying that some parts of their life will be different. However, it is equally important to focus on what will stay the same, including the fact that you and your CPP will continue to work together as parents, even as routines, schedules, and traditions are adjusted or tweaked over time.
The bottom line: Be honest and upfront with your children about the changes that are coming, but identify the people, places, and relationships that will remain the same. Discuss strategies with your CPP for minimizing any responsibility your kids might have for dealing with complicated logistics, and how to make the transitions that do occur as stress-free as possible.
While it is okay to be flexible to accommodate the emotional and behavioral changes that kids experience, it is important to retain a predictable structure at the same time. A more permissive parenting approach may lead to kids feeling less safe and secure. Try not to allow any guilt you may feel about the situation hinder you from responding to them when they are “acting out.” By abandoning the structure that they need at this critical time, you risk creating further instability, which in turn will compound the challenges of co-parenting. Ultimately, kids whose parents are divorced or separated have the exact same needs as kids who do not have this experience. Being a “fun” or “permissive” parent may create some transitory good feelings for both parent and child but will likely also lead to a new set of challenges with your CPP. Take each incident or conflict on a case-by-case basis, and gauge when it is appropriate to give your child extra space to process and when they need a reminder of how you and your CPP expect them to behave, regardless of the separation. Nurturing your children while holding them accountable to expectations can and should happen simultaneously. Similarly, if your child is looking to bend the rules, discuss with your CPP whether the request is reasonable given the circumstance and overall context, and make sure you are on the same page before deciding.
The bottom line: There is no exact science to responding to your children’s behavior changes after telling them about the divorce or separation. You and your CPP must work together to provide a sense of firmness while also being open to the need for flexibility.
Want to Learn More About How to Talk to Kids About Divorce?
If you have any questions, are looking for more tips about how to tell kids about divorce, or are interested in one of our co-parenting classes, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out our upcoming virtual co-parenting classes by visiting the calendar page on our website.
“I learned how important our behavior (verbal and non-verbal) is, and how it impacts our children. How I can rise above all issues, and just focus on my babies.”
“What I learned was that the best thing I can do for my kids is to say something good about their other parent!”
“I appreciated the focus on how many different relationships my/our kids are dealing with.”
“I learned I am in control of my behavior; I can’t control my co-parent!”
“I received validation; it helped to know that I’m not alone. I appreciated the section on preparing for court – that is coming up soon and I am scared.”