by Liat Hughes Joshi
Worried about how to tell your child you are getting a divorce? When you yourself are already not feeling your best, given the circumstances?
How to tell your child you are getting a divorce
How can you set the best foundations for this new phase of family life?
1.Don’t leave it too long.
Once a separation is definite, it’s wise not to leave it too long to let your children know. Otherwise they might overhear you talking to someone else. Or a well-meaning family member or friend could accidentally mention something, not realising your kids aren’t yet aware of the situation.
It’s news that needs to come from you first, so that you can manage the way it’s communicated and help them process it all.
2. Choose a time when you’ll be around to answer questions.
Children might have concerns occur to them immediately, or only awhile later. So pick a time that maximises the chances of you being there for them afterwards, and let them know you’re happy to listen to their worries and answer any questions.
The start of a weekend might work well. But immediately before you have to dash off to school or work, or at their bedtime? Not so much.
3. Ideally, tell them with the other parent.
Unless you truly cannot stand being in the same room as each other, even for a short period? You and your ex-partner should ideally talk to your children together about this.
It’s a situation where you need to at least attempt to put your differences aside and be civil, in the interests of your children.
4. Be (realistically) positive.
It might be hard, but ideally, present this as the start of a new phase of your family’s life rather than a great tragedy.
Keep this realistic. If you really ‘talk it up’ when it is clear you all feel sad, it will seem disingenuous or confusing to your children. Don’t feel guilty if you do get a little upset yourself. This IS a tough conversation to have.
5. Don’t assume you’ll know how they feel.
Children are unique individuals, and we can all react to stress differently.
Listen and observe your children carefully, and respond to their actual emotions, rather than assuming they will feel a particular way.
6. Plan and agree your key messages.
photo by Fred Mouniguet
It isn’t easy if you and your ex have different perspectives on what’s gone on, or what will happen going forward. But for the sake of your children, preserving a united front will reassure them.
Important points to communicate include that:
- you both still love them
- it is not their fault that you are separating
- you will still be their mum and dad and continue to see them (assuming this is the case) even if you live in different houses
- some things might change, but many things will remain the same.
7. Give age appropriate reasons for the separation.
Without this, they might invent their own ideas on what has happened. And at worst, could blame themselves.
For the youngest children, the ideal might be to say something simple like, “Mummy and daddy don’t want to be married anymore, but we still both love you and will still see you.”
8. But don’t say too much!
Conversely, too much openness can be overwhelming, confusing, or upsetting to children.
Don’t discuss anything especially critical or embarrassing about your ex – after all, they are still your child’s parent who they love.
Ask yourself what your child or children actually need to know to make sense of the changes in their lives, rather than what you might feel compelled to tell them. The two can be quite different.
9. Anticipate their worries but be prepared for the unexpected.
They might leap to conclusions about what the separation will mean for them, based on anything from friends with divorced parents, to something they’ve seen on TV or in a story. Cover as many practicalities as possible.
How often will they see both of you, and where will you live? Will they stay at their school and still see both sets of extended family? Younger children especially might focus on surprisingly small details – will there be toys at both houses, or what happens if they forget their teddy bear one night?
Sometimes you genuinely won’t know the answer to all their questions yet. If so, it’s best to simply say you don’t know, but when things become clearer will tell them as soon as you can.
10. Make it clear that you will be there for them to answer questions.
After the initial chat, some children can internalise their feelings. They pick up that you are upset, and don’t want to add to what you have to cope with.
Let them know that whatever they feel – anger, sadness – is normal. And that they don’t need to hide emotions, or put on a brave face.
Consider having a joint journal that you both write in if they aren’t naturally open. It can sometimes make communication easier.
11. Have a post-conversation plan.
It’s wise to try and arrange something distracting that they enjoy for after the conversation. This takes the focus off the news, and shows them immediately that they can still have fun and be happy.
10. Find other outlets to offload to.
Avoid offloading about your ex to the children, no matter how tempting it is in the heat of the moment. Seek support for yourself elsewhere, so they don’t feel responsible for your emotional state. If you don’t have anyone you truly feel you can open up to, consider a counsellor, who can give you unbiased support.
Struggling with divorce? Need to talk to someone who understands? We connect you to top London talk therapists who can help. Or find a UK-wide registered therapist on our booking site, as well as online counsellors you can chat to from anywhere.
Still have a question about how to tell your child you are getting a divorce? Post in the comment box below.
photo by Andrew Crowley
Liat Hughes Joshi is a London-based journalist, author and commentator. She has written five parenting books including Raising Children (Pearson/ Prentice Hall) and 5-Minute Parenting Fixes (Summersdale). Find her at @liathughesjoshi on Twitter and Instagram.