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Your Children

SCRIPTS FOR COMMUNICATING WITH

Talking to your kids about divorce is one of the hardest, and most important, things you’ll do. Here are some helpful ways — vetted by both moms and child psychologists — to handle these sensitive conversations. 

 

1.

When you need to tell your
children you’re getting a divorce

THE SITUATION
 

It’s time to tell the kids that you’re separating or divorcing.

THE DESIRED OUTCOME
 

To let your kids know what’s happening in a way that best supports their needs.

THE STRATEGY

This is one of the hardest conversations you’ll ever have, and you want to be prepared for it. Ideally, you’ll decide when and where it happens, but if your kids are older, that’s not a guarantee.  It’s wise to plan now, because you could be caught off guard, either by your partner or maybe a child crying or leaving the room.

What and how much you say depends on several things, including your kids’ ages. But there are a few universals:

  • Keep it short and give the basics:  who is moving out, where they’ll live, and when they’ll see the other parent.  

  • Assure and reassure them this is not their fault and your love for them has not changed.

  • Don’t cast blame.  Tempting as it may be, don’t tell your kids who wanted the divorce or whose fault it is.  

  • Be a unified front. Part of preparing also means asking your spouse to participate. Tell him what you want to say and ask for his input.  The best message is a consistent one.

  • Tell your children where their favorite things (pets, toys, cars) will be.

THE SCRIPTS 

Here are sample scripts by age range. Remember this is a range and you have to judge the maturity and emotional level of your own child. 


 

Up to age 5

Mommy and Daddy aren’t going to be living together anymore. You, Mommy, and Scout are going to stay here. Daddy is going to live in another house. I’ll take care of you when you’re with me and Daddy will take care of you when you’re with him. We made a calendar for you to know when you’ll see Daddy. We’ll both always be your parents and we love you so much.

Little kids like to refer to the nights until they see the other parent as “sleeps,” so you could tell them “you’ll see Daddy after 3 sleeps.”


 

Elementary School
 

Dad and I have decided not to be married any more. You didn’t do anything to make this happen and we both love you very much. We’ve decided that the 3 of us will live here and Dad is going to get an apartment down the street.  You’ll still see him all the time and he can drive you to school. And you can talk to both of us on the phone or FaceTime whenever you want.  You’re each going to have your own bedroom at Dad’s, and you can help pick out what you want for your rooms. 
 

Middle School/Tweens
 

Dad and I have decided to get a divorce. We both love you so much and don’t want to hurt you. This isn’t because you and your sister got in a fight last week. You didn’t do anything to cause this. Sometimes spouses have different opinions about marriage. We have tried to work on our problems with counsellors, but we have decided that staying married is not what is best for us or for you. Dad is going to move out in 2 weeks once his new house is ready. Then you’ll spend a week with each of us at a time. You can have your phone with you at whichever house you’re at, and we’ll make sure you have your softball gear when you need it. We know this is a lot, so if you have questions or worries you can ask us.


 

TEENS

You may have noticed that we’ve been arguing a lot. We’ve tried our best to work it out, but we can’t. We’ve decided that we can’t stay married anymore. This isn’t your fault - it’s not about anything you or anyone else did. We both love you. We’re still figuring out the schedule that will work best so your school and activities do not need to change, and we promise to talk to you about it as soon as we do. We know a couple of your friends’ parents are divorced and you hear a lot about it at school. If you want to ask us any questions, we’re here to talk to you about it.  Please do not hold your feelings inside and talk to us about what we can do to help you.

THERE'S MORE 

For more tips to help prepare you for this conversation, check out our article “Holy Crap, How Do I Tell the Kids.

 

This is the first conversation with your kids about divorce, but it won’t be the last.  So, check out “what to say when your children ask for details” below. Also, we highly recommend speaking to a child psychologist about how to handle the specific questions your kids may ask you.

 

2.

When your children are asking more questions about your separation

THE SITUATION
 

You had the initial conversation with the kids about separating and now they’re pressing you for details.

THE DESIRED OUTCOME
 

To be honest with your children without doing damage.

THE STRATEGY 

We tell our kids that honesty is the best policy.  Maintaining their trust is important, but you need to balance that with not oversharing. It can be really damaging for your children to hear the details of your breakup or for you to paint the other parent in a bad light.

 

There are exceptions and times when you may need to share more information, but that decision should be made with the help of a child psychologist, and only when you determine that not sharing is actually causing more harm. 

 

When in doubt, keep coming back to the script you and your spouse agreed to and make it your talking points - things like “Dad and I fought too much and agreed it’s better to live apart.”

 

If you’re peppered with questions, take a breath and slow down before you blurt out something you’ll regret.  Try to focus your response on the emotion behind their questioning—like how scared or sad your kids are—and not the content—like the details of why you’re separating.

 

For each script below, we suggest you keep including that this isn’t their fault or because of anything they did, that you will both always be their parents, and both always love them.

THE SCRIPTS

  1. Why is Dad moving out?

    Instead of: “Dad doesn’t want to live here anymore” say “Sometimes moms and dads do better when they live apart.”

     

  2. Why do you have to get divorced/Why can’t you work it out?

    ​Instead of: “It was your dad’s decision” say “We both agreed it’s best.”

     

  3. Did one of you cheat?

    Instead of saying “Dad had an affair” (or that you did) say “I understand you may have questions, but there are things that happen between a couple that their children don’t need to know. You can’t unlearn information once you hear it, and you may wish you didn’t hear some information later in life. What you do need to know is that we understand this is really sad, but Dad and I both love you very much.”

 

3.
When your ex doesn’t show up for his parenting time

THE SITUATION 
 

It’s his parenting time, and he’s a no show.  Or he cancels without a good reason.

THE DESIRED OUTCOME
 
To comfort and reassure your children.

THE STRATEGY

You don’t have to make excuses for your ex, but if your child is upset, do reassure them of the other parent’s love. It’s understandable if you’re angry or frustrated. His actions impact you too - you might have to cancel your own plans or pay for a last-minute sitter.  But think about the impact on your child and save your venting for your girlfriends or your therapist.

THE SCRIPTS 

  1. Sometimes Dad has to work late. I know it makes you angry when he has to cancel last minute. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.
     

  2. I know this divorce has been hard on you. It’s an adjustment for Dad, too.  It’s ok for you to tell Dad how you feel when he cancels. It’s important that you share your feelings with both of us.
     

  3. We all make mistakes sometimes, and I cannot give you a reason or explanation for why Dad is not here. I do know that he loves you. I encourage you to express your feelings to your Dad, and I’m here to listen as well.

 

4.

When your child asks you for something uncomfortable or that puts you on the spot

THE SITUATION 
 

Your child asks you for something sticky or uncomfortable, such as:
 

  1. “Dad said to ask you for money for shopping since he pays you child support”;
     

  2. “Dad asked if I can stay at his house tonight”; or
     

  3. “Dad said it’s ok if I go to soccer camp, so can I go?”

THE DESIRED OUTCOME
 

To remove your child from what should be an adult, private conversation with your ex.

THE STRATEGY 

Divorced parents often unintentionally put their kids in the middle. Put a stop to the underlying behavior without speaking badly about the other parent. If you find your child in this situation, try to focus your response on removing him/her from that spot, instead of being caught on the defensive and feeling you have to respond to your child’s question immediately.

THE SCRIPTS 

  1. I’m sorry that Dad put you in that position. It’s not your job as a child to be in the middle of decisions that are between your dad and me. I’ll talk to Dad and we’ll let you know the answer once he and I decide.
     

  2. Dad should have discussed that with me before telling you yes. I’ll speak to him and then let you know the decision.

THERE'S MORE 

If this keeps happening or your child presses you for an answer, say that if you have to decide right now the answer will be “no.” Remember, you want to help remove your child from the middle and show her that adult decisions should be made by the adults.

 
 

5.

When your child shares something that was said to them about you

THE SITUATION 
 

Your child repeats something the other parent or another family member said about you, like:
 

  1. “Dad said he has to work so hard because he pays you alimony”;
     

  2.  “Grandma said Dad wanted to save your marriage but you wouldn’t do it”; 
     

  3. “Dad said you won’t let him see us more often.”

THE DESIRED OUTCOME
 

To refute what was said without bashing the other parent/family member.

THE STRATEGY

Don't dish it back. It’s really upsetting when you hear bad things have been said about you to your child. But retaliating will only hurt your child more. Also, do your best to stay calm and not show an emotional reaction. Sometimes kids are just looking to see how you respond, so do your best to react evenly and maturely. Remember, you cannot control what the other parent says or does, but you can control your reaction.

THE SCRIPTS

  1. I’m sure that was upsetting for you to hear. The good news is it’s not true.
     

  2. Dad must have been having a hard day if he said that. It’s not what happened.
     

  3. I don’t agree, but Dad has a right to his own opinion. It’s just like you and your friends—you may see things differently and that’s ok.
     

  4. Your Dad and I agreed on a plan for when you will see each of us based on your best interest. I understand certain things may be tougher at his house or mine, and we want to hear your concerns. But it is our job as your parents to support you and help you stay on track to become an independent adult.

THERE'S MORE 

If this happens once or twice, it may be best to blow it off. But if it becomes a pattern, consider telling the other parent, in writing, in a non-accusatory way. Focus on what was said, not whether it’s true.

“Brooks said you told him that I refuse to get a job. I wasn’t there so I don’t know if that’s actually what you said, but it upset him. It also put him in the middle of something you and I disagree about. Please be careful what you say to him.”

6.

When your child asks not to go to the other parent for visitation

THE SITUATION 
 

Your child tells you she doesn’t want to go with the other parent. (This is not a situation in which you suspect abuse, in which case you should seek professional help immediately.)

THE DESIRED OUTCOME
 

To encourage your child’s relationship with the other parent while maintaining her trust in you.

THE STRATEGY 

Your child might need your encouragement to see the other parent, especially at the beginning.  Remind her of how much fun she’ll have,  how much the other parent loves her, and that she’ll see you again soon.  Ask open, non-judgmental questions to explore what’s really going on. Now’s also a great time to consider finding a good child therapist.

THE SCRIPTS 

  1. Honey, I know you might not feel like going to Dad’s house, and it can be easier just to stay here.  But Dad loves you so much, and you seem to have a great time when you’re there. Remember how much fun you had at the water park with him last weekend?
     

  2. I know you don’t feel as comfortable sleeping at Dad’s house.  What if we think about what of your favorite things you’d like to have there with you? If we think of some things, I can talk to Dad about it.

THERE'S MORE 

Many children tell one parent one thing and the other parent the complete opposite. They’re pleasers.  Some kids, especially tweens and teenagers, may be manipulating one or both of you. 

 

Even if you think you’re keeping your emotions private, our kids pick up on what we’re putting out! So, consider whether your child might sense that it actually makes you happy to hear she doesn’t want to see the other parent.  If so, put a stop to that immediately! 

 

It’s important to your child’s development to have a healthy relationship with both her parents. Give your child permission to want to see her other parent: “I hope I haven’t done anything that makes you think I don’t want you to go. Yes, I miss you, but I fully support your time with Dad, and I want you to go enjoy yourself.”

 

Finally, if your child seems afraid or is very resistant to going despite your encouragement, seek professional help to try to find out what’s going on.  A therapist, pediatrician, school counselor, or youth minister can all be excellent resources. 

 

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