Hi Sharon,
Is there a right way to tell your children that you are getting a divorce?

Telling children upsetting news is one of the hardest parts of parenting. There is no simple or easy way to sugar coat a divorce. It is a painful decision for parents and even under the most ideal circumstances it is a hard concept for children to process. I think the answer to your question is really about how you can take your child’s needs into consideration during this difficult time. Here are some guidelines that may help you think about the initial talk you have with your children and the weeks that follow as well.

In many cases it is a good idea to keep whatever you choose to say relatively short. Some version of the following is a possibility. “I don’t know if you have noticed, but Mom and Dad have not been getting along lately.” (As many children are acutely aware of even unspoken marital tension, this alone could bring a reaction that begins the conversation). If not, you could add, “We have decided that it would be better in certain ways to not live together any more” Depending on the age of your child, you might say a little more, but while you are talking make sure you are not overwhelming your child with too much information.

From the very beginning of the discussion leave plenty of room for your child’s emotions. Your child might blurt out something angry, sit quietly in a pout refusing to talk, leave the room making believe the news is no big deal or engage in a relatively reasonable conversation; no matter what they do, make an effort to stay calm and quiet and let them show you how they feel. In order to do that well you have to put your own emotions of guilt, blame, worry, insecurity, anger, joy, etc. on the back burner. All of this will be easier if you have sought out emotional support from family, friends, counselors or community ahead of time. There is no better occasion to do so.

When you think you have said enough, ask your child if he or she has any questions. (If they have refused to engage in the conversation you can wait a while before doing so.) They may want to ask about the details of when they will see each parent, where they will live or the schedule they will now have. It is a good idea to have some of these things agreed on before you have the talk. Of course if at all possible it is usually easier for children if the amount of disruption in their life is kept to a minimum especially at first.

Sometimes children will ask difficult questions about why or make angry statements about one parent or the other. Of course this can be hard to handle but you get to try, perfection is not needed in response. Remember that the first conversation about the divorce is one of many that you will have with your child. . If you feel part of a conversation didn’t go well, you can wait a while and then try again.. You actually have a lifetime to talk this through together. Even years after the divorce is over it is a good idea to check in with your child about their thoughts and questions about this part of their life. You will learn how to talk about it better and better over time.

The first few weeks after hearing about the divorce can be an emotional time for your children as they begin to process this upsetting news. During this period it is important to remember to set aside plenty of time to spend with them. For the parents the first talk may leave them more upset or it may feel like a relief to have it over. In either case, the pull to stay away from their children afterwards can be hard to ignore. As hard as it may be to stay with your children, it is important to do so. It doesn’t matter what you do together, but since your decision was most likely not what they wanted they should have input into whatever you choose. Your child might be interested in talking more about the divorce, or they might prefer to not talk at all and make a big mess cooking in the kitchen. They might want to go see a movie, run around wildly in the park, or run off to their room and slam the door in your face. No matter what they do stay nearby and be available to them for as long as you can.. If your own emotions get the best of you make sure you keep in touch with the support network I mentioned earlier, take some time to enjoy something you love or simply walk outside for a breath of fresh air.

One parent I know talked to her children about her divorce and right afterwards took time off from work to take them to an inexpensive vacation spot they all loved. During that week I don’t think they talked much about the divorce but they got to spend lots of good quality time together and the parent tried really hard to be patient and responsive to their needs. I think this time helped the children feel that their lives were not going to be devastated and that they were not going to lose their relationships with their parents because they wouldn’t be living together any more. It presented the idea that there would be nice times together even if both parents wouldn’t be there for all of them.
You don’t have to leave town to let children know these things.

Divorce is sometimes a necessary part of our lives as parents, but even when both adults agree to the decision the first weeks and months can be painful for everyone in the family. Remembering to think about your children’s needs during this time can make things go better for everyone. Thank you for this very important question.