As a parent, one of the most difficult discussions I’ve ever had was talking to my children about my divorce. Knowing this experience would affect the rest of their lives made it even more challenging. Struggling to find a way to broach the subject was difficult, but I found that with these steps, our emotional and sensitive discussion was handled in the healthiest way possible.
Try to Have the Talk with Both Parents Present
While it is not possible in every circumstance, the best scenario is to have both parents present with all the children together when the subject of divorce is discussed. This allows your child to see that both parents are on the same page, and will hopefully avoid them attempting to pit one against the other in the future. Additionally, it shows a level of maturity that both parents can jointly come together and discuss such a difficult topic. Discussing a divorce openly and honestly as a family limits confusion and gives the children a sense of stability during a very tumultuous time. Having both parents together also shows the children that there is still a unified parental front and reassures them that the new family structure will be a priority to both parents.
Kids are super smart, and they can tell when someone is not being honest with them. When parents are getting divorced, children often have a sense when they are being pandered to or given incorrect information. If you lie to your children, they may become resentful, distrustful, and angry towards you. Also, if you do not tell your children the truth, they may “fill in the blanks” with their own answers, which are likely to be wrong and possibly harmful to them emotionally. A divorce is anxiety-filled and stressful for everyone—being dishonest will only make this time more difficult.
You should explain to your children what a divorce is and how that will impact them. Answer their questions honestly. However, it is important to note that there should be healthy boundaries to how much and what type of information you share with your children about your divorce. You should never reveal all the marital baggage that existed between you and your spouse to cause the divorce. Before you answer your child’s question about the divorce, make sure that it will be a healthy answer and help them understand the process, instead of making them feel angry, fearful, or frustrated at one parent.
While you are discussing things honestly, you should explain to your children that divorce is final. Many children have a fantasy that their parents will get back together, and they will all live happily ever after. Children can become lost in their own world, believing that they will have both parents back together again. Oftentimes, this can happen when children see their parents visiting nicely or communicating in a healthy way. Children can confuse a healthy co-parenting relationship as one that may blossom back into living together as a family. Being honest means explaining that divorces are final.
Explain What Life Will Look Like
Children are naturally fearful of the unknown, just as adults are. Make a plan with your spouse before sitting down with the kids to determine exactly what life will look like after the divorce. If it is possible to agree upon a tentative parenting plan that has a rough schedule of child custody, this may help children understand how they will be able to see both parents and spend time with each after the divorce. If you are unsure of what the child custody plan will be, be honest about that as well, and let them know that you will tell them the details as soon as you know them. Make sure that at the end of the conversation, your children know that they will have the opportunity to continue to build a relationship with both of you.
Be Emotionally Available
Part of being honest is not hiding how you feel. A divorce is an upsetting event and usually a very sad one. Do not be afraid to show emotion and explain that the divorce is something that both parents thought about for a long time, and it was not the result of a quick, rash decision. Explain that both parents are upset, sad, and wish that the divorce did not have to happen. Being honest about your emotions allows your children to communicate their own feelings honestly as well. You are essentially showing them how to cope with a tragic situation in a healthy way, with real feelings and emotions.
Always make sure to temper your emotions enough that your children do not feel that they need to take care of you emotionally. They already have enough emotions to deal with on their own and they should not have to feel responsible for your emotional health as well.
Take time after the initial discussion to be emotionally available to them. They will likely have questions or feel emotional for several months after the conversation. Always being available to talk to them will help them normalize their experience and feel that they can express their emotions without worry or fear.
Reassure Your Children
Many children will have friends whose parents have been divorced or have seen divorced couples on television. These experiences can leave a distorted view of how their experience will be as children from a divorced home. In other cases, children will feel that the divorce is their fault and that if they had just done something differently, their parents would not have gotten divorced. Make sure to discuss with your children in the first conversation, and in every conversation, about their concept of divorce and how they are feeling. Work to reassure them through both words and actions, while speaking honestly with them about all aspects of the divorce, so they are not tempted to believe it is in any way their fault.
Talking Honestly About Divorce
The “divorce talk” was one of the most difficult ones I’ve ever had to have in my life with my children. Being honest with them and myself was one of the best decisions I ever made.
This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.