For parents who decide to divorce, figuring out how to tell the children can be daunting. Depending on the age and maturity of your children, as well as each parent's relationship to them, healthily discussing an impending divorce or separation can feel almost impossible.
At Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers, our attorneys have over 110 years of combined experience helping Texas families navigate divorce. Today, we're covering how you can talk with your children about divorce so you can start the process on the right foot.
Choose When to Tell Your Children Carefully
For many children—even older or teenaged children—the moment parents announce a divorce can be traumatic. It often sticks with kids forever. To get an idea of how your children may be affected, you should read this article of adults recounting where they were when their parents told them they were getting divorced.
Assuming the moment you tell your children about divorce is a formative instant in their lives, you need to approach that moment carefully. These are a few steps you can take to make sure you tell your kids about divorce in a healthy, productive way:
- Be aware of what's going on in your children's lives. This is by far the most crucial step you can take. If your kid is going through a breakup themself or having a hard time academically, you should probably address those issues before bringing up your divorce. The healthier your children are emotionally and physically, the easier it will be for them to process the divorce. As a side note, you should also tell your children's teachers before you tell your children. Your kids might act out in school as a result of hearing about the divorce, so prep the people who regularly interact with your children.
- Prepare a script with your spouse. Even if you're estranged, it's important to present a united front if you can. You should have a plan for what you'll say to the children and how to deal with their reactions (we'll cover this in more detail momentarily).
- Tell your children before you make any significant changes. For example, if one of you needs to move out of the marital home, tell your children about the divorce a few weeks before that needs to happen. Your children will have questions about the divorce and having both parents available to answer them jointly is important. They'll also need time to adjust to the idea of having divorced parents, so give them some breathing room before you start making any drastic adjustments like having one parent move out.
Taking these three steps alone can make telling your children about divorce much easier. However, understanding what to tell your children, and how they might react, can help you prepare further.
How to Tell Your Children About Divorce (and What to Expect)
One factor plays a more prominent role in telling your children about divorce than almost anything else: their age and maturity. A five-year-old will not process a divorce the same way a 16-year-old will. In general, here's a breakdown of how different age groups commonly react to divorce:
- Children aged 0-5 have a limited scope of understanding. If your child is around toddler-age, simplicity is king. Don't try to explain advanced concepts to young children. For example, even if adultery plays a role in the divorce, a child barely out of preschool won't understand the concept of marital loyalty, much less why infidelity would cause parents to part ways. Something like "mommy and daddy need to be apart" can suffice. You will probably need to repeat the reason for the divorce often, even after it takes place. Above all else, reinforce your love for your child and comfort them when showing signs of distress.
- Children aged 6-11 may see things in black and white. Many younger children are still fairly egocentric, so they may assume fault for the divorce. You can be a bit less straightforward, but simple explanations are still the best. They'll probably respond more strongly to the idea of divorce, so expect them to lash out at you.
- Children aged 12-14 will understand more. You should discuss the reasons for the divorce in more depth. It's also important to remember that children at this age are also going through significant changes, such as puberty and shifting from middle school to high school. Take some time to understand how these developmental shifts change how your children will perceive divorce (a psychologist specializing in developmental psychology can be a huge help).
- Children 14 and older are still profoundly affected. It can be easy to assume that a teenager with their own circle of friends may not care as much about the divorce. That's not usually true. Teenagers will still want love and reassurance from their parents and want a more in-depth understanding of the divorce. It's essential to focus on your child's wellbeing, no matter their age or how much teenage angst they put off in your interactions.
Once you understand how your children's age and maturity affect how they perceive divorce, you can tell them about the divorce in a healthy way. You should keep a few things in mind:
- Above all else, your children want love and reassurance. It's important to reinforce that both parents still love them and will see them (barring circumstances where a parent represents a danger to the child or cannot see them anymore for other reasons). It's also crucial for your children to know that the divorce isn't their fault.
- Your children may lash out with anger. It's not uncommon for children to react strongly to hearing about their parents’ divorce. Frequently, they do this to "test" their parent's love. When your children lash out, you should always attempt to react with love and understanding. They're looking for support and security, and it's important not to punish them for reacting strongly to an emotionally traumatic event like divorce.
- Playing the blame game can end badly. Unless you and your spouse are severely estranged due to an action like domestic or child abuse, avoid talking badly about each other. If you disparage one another, your child might feel forced to "choose sides," which is never healthy.
- The more detail you can give, the better. Which parent will move out? When? Who gets to keep the dog? What about the house? Especially if your children are older, knowing what to expect can help them deal with the divorce.
- Be honest about your emotions and encourage emotional honesty from your children. It's okay to get choked up or cry about the divorce, and it's important not to shield your children from those emotions. If they see you being emotionally open, they're more likely to respond in kind, which can make the process healthier for everyone.
- Understand that every child reacts differently. Some children may lash out, others might remain silent. Some might ask a lot of questions, others may not want to talk about the divorce at all. Engaging in activities such as counseling can help you ensure your child processes the divorce and is honest with you about how it impacts them.
Taking the steps laid out in this blog can help you approach your divorce in a healthy, productive manner.
At Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers, we have over a century of combined experience dealing with divorce.
To receive a consultation from our team, contact us online or via phone at (940) 293-2313.