How to Tell Your Kids About Your Divorce

Parents discussing issue with teenager. Concept of how to tell your kids about divorce

Any time a marriage ends, the children of that relationship will need to know about it. Children are generally flexible and resilient to change. They can adapt to new living arrangements and parenting plans. However, how you tell your kids about your divorce can set them up for an easy transition, or increase the chances that they feel caught in the middle - regardless of their age.

When to Tell Your Kids You are Getting a Divorce

Telling your children about your separation or divorce early can give them time to adjust to the idea. However, telling them too soon, before you and your spouse have agreed on issues like who will leave the family home or how you will share parenting responsibilities, can leave your children with a lot of unanswered questions. Once you and your spouse are confident that your marriage relationship is over, take some time to sort through how you will divide up childcare and parenting responsibilities, at least temporarily. For adult children, it may help to have a plan to share the news with them together, as well as an agreement about how much or how little you want to share. Then, it is time to tell your kids you are getting a divorce. This may happen before you separate, or a few months before the official paperwork is filed.

Once the decision to tell your kids you are getting a divorce has been made, try to choose a time and place free from emotions or stress. Don’t declare that you are getting a divorce at the end of an argument. Avoid scheduling the conversation near birthdays, holidays, or other emotional dates. Choose a place that is private, where the kids feel comfortable. Make sure to leave time after the conversation for them to decompress and process the news. Choosing the right time and place for the initial divorce conversation can show your children that divorce may be a big deal, but it doesn’t have to be scary or hurtful. It can also reinforce for the children that they are not going to be tasked with taking sides and that you will always be family.

How to Tell Your Kids About Divorce

Ideally, you and your spouse should tell your children about your divorce together, in a calm emotional state. This isn’t always possible. However, presenting a united front to your children in this first divorce conversation can help them understand that this is a shared decision reached together. It is not all mom’s fault or dad’s fault. To the extent there are grounds for a fault-based divorce, save those arguments for the courtroom.

It is important that, even if you are angry with your spouse, you portray love and respect for one another during this conversation with your children. It is important to reinforce for your children that they are loved by both of you; they are safe; and they will get to see both of your going forward. Communicate what is happening in clear, easily understood language, for example:

  • We have decided we need to live separately
  • A parent will be moving out next month
  • We don’t want to keep fighting
  • We will be here for you and we will always be family

This is also an appropriate time to communicate your parenting plans, especially where the children will be when. Be clear what will change, and what will stay the same. And be ready to respond to questions like:

  • Why can’t you get along?
  • Will you ever get back together?
  • Will we have to move?
  • Will we need to change schools?
  • Did we (your kids) cause the divorce? (Always answer no!)
  • When and how will we see each parent in the future?
  • Will there be enough money for me to keep doing ________ (kids’ priorities like extracurricular activities) after the divorce?
  • Can we still compete in sports or attend summer programs?
  • Where will the family pet live?
  • Can we move furniture to your new house?

How Different Aged Children May Respond to Divorce

Every family dynamic is different, and no two children will respond to divorce exactly the same. Siblings may have very different reactions to the same initial divorce conversation. The age of your children and your child’s specific developmental stage will play into this, as do their personalities, and their past relationships with both parents.

Common Pre-School Aged Responses to Divorce

Young children often do not understand what divorce means to them. They may feel separation anxiety with one or both parents or become fearful of other adults. Toddlers and young children are more likely than their older siblings to “regress,” acting more baby-like or having trouble with tantrums, toileting, or sleep.

How Grade School Aged Children May Respond to Divorce

As children get older, their response to divorce can turn inward. Grade school children are most likely to blame themselves for the separation. They may try to “fix” the relationship. They may become angry, sad, or moody, and worry about seeming disloyal to their parents. Children may also have trouble in school, academically or behaviorally, and may act more immature than they did before they learned about the divorce. Children this age tend to have the hardest time accepting divorce and will fantasize about reconciliation.

Adolescents and Divorce

Adolescence is already a period where teens separate themselves from their parents. When you add divorce into the mix, this can cause teenagers to blame one or both parents. They may become aggressive or angry, or withdraw from friends and family. Teens also have a more practical understanding of divorce than their younger siblings. They may worry about money or try to “step up” to take the place of a missing parent. They may also become depressed or engage in high-risk activities like sex or drug use, as a way of claiming control. Adolescents will be much more concerned about preserving their fledgling independence and about how your divorce will impact their day to day lives and social engagements.

Telling Your Adult Children About Your Divorce

When the topic of telling your kids about divorce comes up, adult children often get skipped over. The need to discuss your divorce doesn’t stop when your children graduate from high school. Adult children are most directly affected by divorce if they:

  • Live at home
  • Are receiving financial assistance in college
  • Depend on parents to pay for utilities such as cell phones and internet
  • Feel caught in the middle with pending life events, for example: wedding, college graduation, birth of a child

However, even fully independent adults should still learn about your divorce first-hand before any court orders are entered.

How to Prepare Your Kids for Divorce

Telling your kids about your divorce isn’t a one-time event. It is very common for children to experience shock at the news their parents are separating. They may not understand what it means, or be able to predict how they will feel about it. Each parent should encourage a child to come to them at any time if there are questions or a need to communicate emotions. Listen without judgment, and provide age-appropriate answers.

To the extent possible, work with your spouse to maintain consistent daily routines for your children across both households. Consistent bedtimes, chores, rules, and contact with parents through phone or video chats can all provide your children stability and help them predict what will happen in their future. Similarly, planning a predictable schedule is important. Your kids need to know whether they can plan a playdate at Mom’s house on Tuesday or whether Dad will pick them up after soccer practice. The more these expectations stay the same, the easier it will be for your children to make the transition.

What to Tell (and Not Tell) Your Children About Divorce and Custody Disputes

Judges generally direct parents not to talk about their divorce or custody dispute with their children. This can be difficult, though, because kids always have questions. They want to know what will happen to them. When that happens, do:

  • Be honest with your children about what is happening
  • Communicate what will happen in simple terms
  • Tell your children you aren’t sure or need to wait to see how things turn out
  • Acknowledge that waiting for answers can be hard
  • Remind your kids that they are loved and safe

However, don’t:

  • Make promises or predictions about what will happen
  • Blame delays on your spouse or the judge
  • Tell your kids why you think custody is better with you
  • Make them feel like they have to take sides
  • Badmouth your spouse in front of the children

An appropriate level of communication about divorce and custody issues can vary from case to case. In high-conflict cases, or cases where a parent is abusive or truly unfit, it may be appropriate to take a more direct approach, assuring your child that you and your divorce attorney are working to make sure they are safe. If your older children have witnessed arguments or conflict in the past, it may also be appropriate to talk about their options if those issues come up during parenting time.

As the process continues, your children may need to speak to the judge or a Best Interest Attorney about their preference for custody. It can be tempting to guide your children in what to say. However, it is better to tell them to simply tell the truth, whatever it is. Reassure your children that you will absolutely love them, even if the judge decides they should live with your spouse. You may also consider options for counseling for your children so that they have a safe and confidential place to process feelings.

How to Talk About Your Spouse with Your Children

Things can get heated over the course of a divorce. When parenting exchanges bring conflict; spouses act poorly or take unnecessary risks; or judges enter rulings you don’t agree with; you may want to vent to your children.

Don’t do it! Give your kids the space to be kids.

If you need to express your (fully appropriate) feelings about the divorce process, find an adult you trust or a confidential mental health provider, and have that conversation away from the children. Never disparage your spouse in front of your children. It could make them feel like they need to defend your spouse or that you feel the same way about them. Remember that your children’s relationship with their other parent may not have been affected in the same way yours has. When you say negative things about your spouse, it may reflect negatively on your younger children in particular, who still identify strongly with their parents and tend not to see their faults.

Similarly, if you have difficulty speaking civilly to your spouse, avoid having conversations with your spouse around your children. If you need to work out something about the divorce, find a time to do it while the kids aren’t home. Do everything you can to avoid fighting with your spouse when the children can hear. And, never ask the children to pass messages to your spouse. If you must communicate with your spouse about a parenting issue, use email, text messages, or other electronic software to do it directly.

Tips for Co-Parenting Communication During and After Divorce

Your children will learn a lot about how to respond to your divorce by following your lead. If you want to reduce the impact of that divorce on your kids, one strategy is to improve your co-parenting communication with your spouse. This means:

  • Putting your children’s needs first, every time
  • Limiting communications to child-related issues (work with your divorce attorney to resolve other issues like spousal support or property)
  • Give your co-parent as much notice as possible about child-related events like doctors’ appointments and school events
  • Set expectations about when a response is required and when you expect to hear back
  • Separate your communications from your emotions; use email to avoid escalation
  • Make it easy for teachers, doctors, and other professionals to reach both parents by freely providing contact information

At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our divorce attorneys know how hard it can be to talk to your kids about divorce. We can help you plan when and how the initial divorce conversation happens, and prepare answers for many of your kids’ questions. We also help parents learn collaborative co-parenting methods to help reduce conflict and keep kids out of divorce and custody battles. Contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation with one of our Maryland attorneys.

Categories: Divorce