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How to tell the kids you're getting a divorce

21 Sep
21

One of thehardest parts of your divorce telling your kids, here is my advice for how to do it in a way that allows the best outcome for all.

Little blonde girl looking sad

Adults see divorce for the complex, multi-faceted situation it is.  Children, however, have a different approach depending on their age and stage of development.

Young children tend to view divorce in concrete and self-centred terms wondering, ‘Where will the cat live?’ or ‘How will I get to school?’.  For older children and teenagers it is more likely that they will have an opinion about what went wrong in your relationship, and will take sides.

Understanding where your children are at, developmentally, can help you help them adjust to the reality of divorce. Here are my tips for having that conversation so that you can support your children and your family to a happy outcome:

1. Sort out timings

What you say and the timing for when you say it will have a huge impact on how your children react and deal with the news of your divorce. So, make sure you plan. For instance avoid breaking the news when your kids are sad, distracted, or tired. Do not tell them during happy moments, such as holidays or birthdays. Choose a good time that brings about the least impact.

2. Preparing a parental plan

Preparing a parental plan of who is going to do what, and where the children will go is a great thing to have in place. These take time but provide reassurance to children, they will want answers.

3. Talking to the children together and not blaming

This plan should involve both of you. Don’t talk about the reasons. Do not get into an argument. Do not blame each other. This is about them and not you. You are both their parents. They need to know you are both there for them.

3. Explaining the outcome

When telling kids about divorce, the inevitable question will come to their minds: Where will they live? Will they get to see you both? In the best-case scenario, you and your partner should have already decided this with your parental plan and can take them through this together.

4. All your kids should be together when you tell them

If you have older children, you may feel that they will have a better understanding of why you and your spouse are divorcing. However in my experience it is best to have this initial conversation announcing the divorce together as a family. If you have more than one child, they will be each other’s support system.

5. Remember you are the parent

If they are old enough, your children will want to have a say in the process, for example they might want to choose who they’ll live with or how they split their time. But this is a decision that you and your ex-partner should make with their interests in mind, ultimately you are the parents.

6. Expect reactions and be prepared to deal with them

Each child will react differently to the news. Some may briefly cry, but then may act as if they didn’t hear it. Ignoring this situation is their way of thinking things will sort themselves out. Other children may keep changing the subject. They may refuse to listen altogether. Others won’t show emotion; they will bury it deep inside.

As a parent, you should be prepared for any of these reactions when telling your children about your divorce.

How to have the conversation and support them afterwards by age group :

If your children fall into more than one age group, tell them together and then have a follow up conversation that is appropriate to their age.

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0 to 5 year olds:

For this age group, who’ve a limited ability to understand cause and effect, they are unable to think ahead to the future. They have some ability to think about feelings, but limited ability to talk about them.

When having the conversations, stick to simple facts and the basics. Make sure you reassure the children and explain it from their perspective, not yours. The key thing they want to know is who is going to look after them.

Watch for signs of distress including fear, anger or emotional instability, which may be expressed through clinginess, anxiety or general irritability. They can also regress. For example, those who were sleeping through the night might start waking up more often or even start bed wetting.

Consistency is key. All children need a sense of stability and reassurance. So as much as possible, keep their normal routines (meals, play, bath, bed) this will help with their adjustment.

Your children may also feel a sense of relief, depending on your relationship with your partner and how much they’ve picked up on things.

6 to 8 year olds:

6- to 8-year-olds have a little more ability to think and talk about feelings and a broader, less egocentric view of what’s going on around them. But they still have a limited understanding of complex circumstances such as divorce.

9 to 11 year olds:

9- to 11-year-olds have a more developed ability to understand, think and talk about feelings and circumstances. However, they tend to see things in black and white; may assign blame for the split. They may show their distress as fear, anxiety, anger or sadness, and some display more clear-cut signs of missing their absent parent. Some may also fantasize about reconciliation and try to make that happen. Children who think that they might be able to bring their parents back together, or that they somehow contributed to the divorce, will have trouble moving on with the healing process. They need to understand that your divorce is an adult decision which they didn’t cause and cannot influence.

Stability and routines are still key at this age. Children at this age range are more able to talk about what they’re feeling. But because they can doesn’t mean they will. Approaching the topic indirectly can help; for example ‘Some children feel sad, afraid or even angry when their parents divorce,’ is less threatening than asking directly, “Are you feeling sad?” Books about divorce can also help children focus on their feelings.

12 to 14 year olds:

Preteens have a greater capacity to understand issues related to divorce and  the ability to take part in discussions and ask questions. It is also an age when they start to desire more independence and start questioning parental authority. Relationships outside the family are increasingly important to them.

Irritability and anger are common, at both parents or the one who moved out. It can be hard to gage how much of a young teen’s moodiness is related to the divorce and what is just natural for their age. Comparing how your child was before the separation and how their behaviour and mood has changed will help.

Keeping communication open decreases the chance that emotional problems slip under the radar. Children at this age can be harder to reach and some may act like they don’t want contact. But most teens and preteens still need and crave connection with parents. Often they are testing you to see how much you care rather than wanting you to go away.

Keep talking, even though your child may seem to push you away; make at least some of the conversation about what they want to talk about.

14 years plus

Once your child turns 14, it is more likely that they will have an opinion about what went wrong in your relationship, and will want to take sides. It is quite normal for your child to go through mood swings and challenging behaviour but this isn’t all down to your divorce or separation.

Your teen is likely to feel angry and unfortunately you may be on the receiving end of this. It’s important that they know that it is okay and make sure that they understand that what has gone wrong in your relationship doesn’t have to happen in all relationships.

Reminder

Whatever age your children are, always remember to be consistent, provide as much stability as possible and keep communication open. This is one of the hardest things to navigate in your divorce and will have the biggest impact long term. Looking after yourself and your mindset so you can look after them is vital. You will get through this and can be stronger and better for it.

Books about divorce for children:

1. Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (Little Brown, 1988). Helps explain divorce in a friendly and easy-to-understand manner. Ages 4-8

2. I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Jeanie Franz Ransom, illustrated by Kathryn Kunz Finney (Magination Press, 2000). This storybook explores the range of emotions that children are likely to feel when the subject of divorce is first brought up. Ages 4-8

3. What Can I Do? A Book for Children of Divorce by Danielle Lowry (Magination Press, 2001). Offers resources to help children understand and sort out feelings they face over divorce. Ages 8-12

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