How to tell the children about divorce will depend on their age.
The way you explain the upcoming divorce to a 2-year-old is different from the language and vocabulary you will use with an 8-, 12- or 16-year-old. The one thing that is certain is that you need to tell them no matter what age.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking and believing that they will not get it. Truth is even really young babies and toddlers will tend to notice the gap that is left by the parent who leaves the home. A child that is old enough to laugh is old enough to experience emotions associated with changes including loss.
Once you tell your child or children about the upcoming divorce, over the next few days, weeks or even months, keep an eye them. Look for any changes in behaviour including sleeping and eating habits as well as changes in temperament.
If you see any changes in behaviour don’t be afraid to mention it to them. Remember some children, especially the young ones, might not have the vocabulary nor the maturity to express themselves so they may need you to do it for them. Tell them that you have noticed some changes in them (be specific) and make that link for them. By doing so, you will be normalising your child’s change in behaviour or feelings in which in turn may help alleviate their concerns and worries.
Avoid putting the blame on either parent, even if it’s their fault in one way or the other that the divorce is happening. It may help you and make you feel vindicated but it really doesn’t help your child at all. This is not a point-scoring time nor a pay-back time.
So here are some pointers on how to tell the kids about Divorce
- Choose the right time and place to tell them but avoid bedtimes or a couple of hours before bedtime. It would be best to tell them at a time of day where you can go on to spend the rest of the day with them so that they can ask questions if need be and begin to digest the news with you in the room or in the vicinity
- Choose a place that they’re familiar with e.g. at home. Avoid making it a ‘special’ occasion or special new venue
- Don’t assume that the children know why you’re separating. Tell them why but avoid going into the nitty gritty details no matter what age. Remember you’re the parent/s, the adult/s in the room and it’s towards you that they will turn for comfort, care and as a container for their anxieties, fears and sadness
- Tell them together if at all possible and agree before hand what to tell them. If not then let the other parent know when you are going to tell the kids about divorce. If you tell them without the other parent then let him/her know that you have told the children. This is not for your ex’s benefit but for your children
- Tell them it’s not their fault. There’s nothing they could have done to stop you both from beginning the divorce process just as there’s nothing they can do to stop it or fix the marriage or relationship. This may need to be repeated several times over a long period of time for the younger ones who are still at the developmental stage of their lives where they see the world from an egocentric point of view.
- Remind them that they are loved by both parents and the separation is not because of them. Sounds very clichéd but you will be surprised how often this is not done and how parents assume that the children know this.
- Acknowledge, verbally, the emotions and thoughts that they are going thorough or that they might go through from here on. If you’ve experienced divorce yourself, tell them but at a later date when they will be able to hear what you’re saying. If you tell them at the same time as you’re telling them about your own divorce, it becomes about you. This is not the time. They will be much more receptive later
- Be honest with the children. Don’t give them false hope. If you’re not getting back together, let them know. Don’t make promises that you cannot keep. Better to say, “I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that now,” than promise them that you will see them everyday when you know that won’t be possible. Be honest and as open as you can.
- Don’t be be afraid of showing them that you are upset too, within reason of course, it gives them permission to be upset too. But don’t allow them to become your carers, especially as you go through the divorce process or divorce proceedings. Don’t turn them into little adults that need to make sure that mummy is ok or that daddy has had dinner. It’s not their place to do that.
The moment that you tell your children that you and the other parent are going to divorce and/or separate is likely to be a watershed moment for them. That moment is indeed important but what is even more important is how the divorce process and life after divorce is handled by you both.
About Dr Soila Sindiyo
Dr Soila Sindiyo is a counselling psychologist and a child development psychologist who has worked with children, young people and families for several years. She is the founding editor of The Divorce Magazine and is an accredited Positive Parenting Program (Triple P) practitioner.
Her private practice website parentinglives.co.uk