You can do this: our top tips, real-women advice, and links to some great books - for kids - on the subject.
Friend, telling your children you’re getting a divorce will likely be one of the hardest conversations you’ll have in your life. With anyone. When we decided to launch Divorce in Good Company, we knew we had a million things to share with you - our goal is to create content around the things that matter to you most. So we polled our community of divorced gals on what they wanted to discuss the most, and hands-down the answer was the best way to tell the kids.
So with that, here are 5 tips to help you prepare.
1. Decide When To Tell Them.
Let’s start with the “when,” then we’ll talk about the “what.” When you and your spouse tell your kids about your divorce depends on a few things – where you are in the process, the ages of your kids, and what else is going on in their lives.
· If your husband is moving out on Saturday, you’re going to have to do it quickly. But if you’re both staying in the home while you work out the terms of your divorce, you may not want to tell the kids until you do. Kids thrive on consistency. Being able to tell them when and where they’ll see each of you in the future will spare them the angst of not knowing.
· Your timing will also depend on how old your kids are. Your 4 year old can’t grasp time yet. (Hence the “are we there yet” question 56 times in a 20 minute car ride.) So wait to tell her until it’s about to happen. But your teenagers in the house may already know things are rocky and be pushing you for answers. If you know you’re getting a divorce and your 15 year old keeps asking if you are, don’t lie. But do prepare so you don’t just blurt it out.
· If you have a choice in timing, think about what else is going on in your kids’ lives. This conversation is about them – it’s not about you getting it off your chest. If you can avoid telling your kids right before finals, right before their birthday, or any other really important day in their lives, do it.
2. Gear your Discussion to Your Child’s Age.
You already talk to your sixteen year-old differently than you do your six year-old, but what your child needs to hear when you have the divorce conversation might surprise you. It’s not just about the words you choose or how you say them, but about knowing what your child’s biggest concern is going to be when you tell him. Little kids see things in concrete, self-focused terms. So your 4 year old’s biggest fear might be where his doggie is going to live, not which nights he’s going to sleep at daddy’s house. Your 17 year old might be more concerned about whether he can still go on spring break with his friends, or whether you’re still going to pay for college. Think ahead about what their fear-points might be so you can deal with them head on.
3. The Universals All Kids Need to Hear
- No matter what your children’s ages, in the initial conversation, stick to the basics: who is moving out, where they’ll live, when they’ll see the other parent, and where their most beloved items (pets, toys, car, etc.) will stay. This will stay true for pre-schoolers in subsequent conversations too. For high schoolers, you’re probably not going to get away with it, so plan how you’ll answer the more probing questions with the help of a family therapist. You’ll give much better answers if you’ve thought about them in advance rather than blurting them out in a moment of weakness.
- Assure them it’s not their fault. Kids tend to internalize their parents’ decision to divorce. Tell them as many times as you need to that they did nothing wrong, that you’re not getting a divorce because of anything they did, and how much you both love them.
- Don’t point fingers. Keep a united front. Please do not use this pivotal moment to cast blame on the other parent. Tell your children it’s not mom or dad’s fault (even if you’re screaming inside, save that one for therapy). Little children especially tend to blame the parent who moves out. Their thoughts may be as simple as - Daddy’s moving out, Daddy’s leaving us. Your 10 year old, on the other hand, might have picked up on something you said during a fight last week and will attribute your divorce to that one thing, like “are you getting a divorce because you were mad that Dad missed dinner last week?” For now, it’s critical for your child’s well-being at the beginning stage that you tell them it’s a mutual decision.
- Tell them when they’ll see each of you. This goes back to timing. If you’ve worked out the schedule, tell them in general terms (“you’re going to see us both equally” or “you’ll live with me and see Daddy on the weekends”). But if you don’t know yet, assure them they will spend lots of time with both of you. If your kids are old enough to understand, tell them you’re working out the schedule and will let them know as soon as you do. It’s stressful for kids, just like it is for us, to not know where they’re going when. So try to tell them the plan for the next few weeks even if you don’t know the plan for the next few years.
"I talked about being “un-married” instead of being divorced. For some reason this was language my kids understood. Since I had been separated for so long, I think it was a relief for them to have some language to talk about what was really going on in our family."
- Beth, Atlanta
4. Be Non-Judgmental About How Your Kids React.
When Meredith’s parents told them they were getting a divorce, Meredith’s sister, who was 6 at the time, exclaimed “Oh great, now we get 2 Christmases!” You don’t know how your child is going to respond to the news, but it’s so important that however they do, you affirm their feelings. Even if their initial reaction is to say nothing. Even if their initial reaction is hurtful. Chances are, when you first tell them they’ll be in shock. How they react on day 1 of the news may be very different than how they react later. But either way, you’re the adult, so act like it. Whether it’s anger, tears, blame, or in Meredith’s sister’s case, joyful about more gifts, let them express it without judgment.
"Telling our daughter was so hard. What helped was going to fun place with her afterwards with both parents, and then a family dinner to demonstrate that we would always be a family and support her."
5. Help Your Kids Help Themselves with these Great Books.
As much as you can assure and reassure your kids, you can’t do it all on your own. That’s why we have experts, right? And just like you need support during this time, your kids also want to know they’re not alone. Here are a handful of our community’s favorite kid-friendly books about divorce. We’ve included an Amazon link for easy ordering. (We’re not getting paid to do this. Just making life one click easier on you).
1. Mom’s House, Dad’s House, for Kids: Feeling at Home in One Home or Two by Isolina Ricci Ph.D. Dr. Isa’s book Mom’s House, Dad’s House has been a gold standard read for parents for years. In “For Kids” she’s taken her time-tested wisdom and adapted it to speak directly to children. This one’s written for older kids.
2. Standing on My Own Two Feet: A Child’s Affirmation of Love in the Midst of Divorce by Tamara Schmitz. Pretty illustrations and uplifting book. This one’s for littles.
3. Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. Note that the book has illustrations of dinosaurs (parents) arguing in front of their kids. Some say it’s not geared towards an amicable divorce where kids really didn’t see their parents fighting. Geared for ages around 4-8.
4. Where Am I Sleeping Tonight? by Carol Gordon Ekster. This one is aimed towards elementary school kids in a shared custody situation. Note if you don’t know your custody plan yet, you might want to hold off on this one, as it details one 4th grader’s actual schedule.
5. Divorce Is Not the End of the World: Zoe’s and Evan’s Coping Guides for Kids by Zoe Stern and Evan Stern. Written for kids by kids, with look backs from Zoe and Evan when they became adults.
This is far from an exhaustive list. It’s just meant to get you started on resources for your children when you need them at the beginning of your divorce. We’ll be adding many more resources for parents and kids alike here at Divorce In Good Company.
Like any tough conversation, the more you can prepare in advance, the more likely you are to stay calm and be less emotional. Your kids are going to take their cues from you. Think from both your head and your heart. These are your kids. They love you, and what they need most right now is to feel how much you both love them and that it’s going to be OK.
You can do this, Mom. We’re with you.