How to Tell Your Kids You’re Getting Divorced

how to tell your kids about divorce - concept

If you have decided that your marriage is over, resist the temptation to talk to your children about it alone, and before the time is right. The way you and your spouse handle this delicate conversation can have a lasting positive or negative effect on your children. Here are some things to consider when you tell your kids you’re getting divorced:

The Effect of Divorce on Children

When kids know their parents are getting a divorce, it can feel like their lives are being pulled apart. Children of all ages – from toddlers to teens – can struggle with the big emotions around their parents not loving each other anymore. Your kids may not understand what is happening, or may face a lot of uncertainty about how your choice will affect their lives in the future. The way you tell your kids you’re getting divorced can drastically affect their response, and their memory of the event for years to come.

How to Tell Your Kids You're Getting a Divorce

The way you and your spouse tell your kids you’re getting divorced is important. But there are some very practical and concrete things you can do to make the conversation easier:

  1. Handle Your Own Emotions First

Divorce is emotional for everyone involved, but if you tell your kids you’re getting divorce when you are angry or especially sad, it will make the event seem like a bigger deal than if you can come to the conversation calmly. It is fine to let your children see that you have feelings about what is happening, but you should draw the line between expressing emotion and allowing your emotion to control the conversation. Some children are naturally compelled to take on the parental role when they see a parent who is sad or angry. However, it is your job as the parent to avoid putting the children in that position. Your therapist, not your children, should be your emotional support.

  1. Talk to Your Children Together, if Possible

School-aged children often feel pressured to choose sides between parents when they separate. You can help relieve that pressure by talking to your children together with your spouse, or at least agreeing on a consistent message. Ideally you both should tell your children that you decided together to get a divorce, rather than blaming the end of the marriage on the children’s mom or dad. If you feel strongly that you do not want the divorce, the fact is that your spouse is entitled to it, so telling the children you both “acknowledge” the need to divorce is truthful and far better than blaming their other parent. Even if you have already separated, you should make the effort to talk to your children together so they can see that both parents are on the same page about what will happen going forward.

  1. Pick the Right Time for a Serious Talk

You should not tell your kids you are getting a divorce the minute you make the decision unless perhaps a separation is imminent. It is smart to choose a time when they will be receptive, have time to process their emotions, and aren’t stressed because of a project at school or big game or dance recital. It is also wise to avoid raising the issue around the holidays, their birthdays, or other special occasions, since finding out their parents are getting a divorce could cloud their memory of an otherwise pleasant event. The best time to tell them is just before you separate, so they don’t get confused by you living together even after you tell them you are divorcing. And once a second home is in place, they can go about making it feel like their own by choosing what they want to take from their room (within reason) and picking out new things (within reason).

  1. Make Sure They Know It Is Not Their Fault

Younger children often blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, or feel like they can “fix” the relationship if they just “be good.” They might think, “If I had just done my homework, my parents wouldn’t be yelling at each other about it, and wouldn’t be getting a divorce.” No matter what the reasons for your breakup are, be sure to tell your children they are not at fault for the end of your relationship. You may need to repeat this throughout the divorce process. And if you are divorcing because your parenting styles and beliefs are very different, get help immediately! Work with a co-parenting therapist or other similarly qualified person to help you fix this issue so that it doesn’t just get worse after the divorce and become even more stressful for your children.

  1. Don’t Make Promises Outside Your Control

Your children’s immediate questions will most likely center on how the divorce will affect them:

  • When will they get to see Mom or Dad?
  • Will they have to move?
  • Can they still go to the same school?
  • Will they be allowed to keep their pets?

The answers to these questions may depend on future court hearings and negotiations, but never tell a child, “the judge will decide.” Children should not be informed of court proceedings. It is important that you avoid making promises about things that are outside your control. While it is valuable to assure your children that you and your spouse both still love them, and will be able to see them regularly, you should avoid specifics about parenting time schedules or other details until the settlement or trial is complete. You can say, “We are working on that and will let you know, but meanwhile, focus on living your life as always and don’t worry about us.”

  1. Accept Your Kids’ Response to the News You are Getting a Divorce

It is appropriate for your children to be mad or sad or even glad after you tell them you are getting divorced. They may have many questions, or they may not want to talk about it at all. Their feelings may focus on one parent, or they may express themselves differently to each of you. Be patient and tell your children their feelings are okay and they can talk to you. This may not happen all at once. Remind your children that you are there to listen when they have big feelings, and consider getting them a therapist or counselor that they can talk to without worrying about how you’ll feel about what they have to say.

How to Tell Your Kids About Divorce

After you tell your kids you’re getting divorced, they will likely have a lot of questions about the divorce process itself, and their role in it. How much you should tell your children will depend on their ages, but certain things are true for any child involved in divorce:

  • Be honest, without sugar coating or suggesting you and your spouse may get back together
  • Your children don’t need to know the reasons for your divorce. “It’s complicated and grown-up stuff that we don’t want you to think or worry about,” is sufficient.
  • Give them clear information about parenting time schedules and routines, including who will pick them up from school and where they will be staying each night (consider using a calendar)
  • Your children should never be put in the middle or asked to carry messages to your spouse. “Tell your mom/dad ….” should never be uttered. “I’ll let your mom/dad know….” works.
  • If they are old enough to be interviewed by the judge, don’t tell them what to say or suggest they keep secrets. “If you want a voice, the judge is there to listen, and if you don’t want a voice, the judge won’t pressure you. Just be yourself and know that we will both love you no matter what you do or don’t say.”

Contact a Compassionate Divorce & Family Law Attorney to Guide You Through Your Divorce

Telling your kids that you are getting divorced isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be traumatizing on your children. At NSSSB, our Ann Arbor family law attorneys help you keep the focus on your kids, provide tips on communicating with your children about the divorce process, and negotiate custody and parenting time schedules that are in their best interests. Click here to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.