By Shauna Zotalis, M.A.
You and your spouse have decided to divorce and now you are faced with the daunting question: how do we tell the kids? Oftentimes it is in some way a relief to have decided upon the future of your marriage and a new sense of dread develops when you realize that the next step is breaking the sad news to your children.
You are not alone in worrying about how to tell such important information to your children since it is quite literally life changing for them and the family as a whole. And it is wise to be concerned since research has shown that the memory of being told remains vivid for children long into their adult life. The finding highlights the depth of children’s shock and possible trauma of being told about the divorce.
Knowing the memory will be like a freeze frame in their mind, it is important to take special consideration about the setting and circumstances when disclosing the divorce. Try to deliver the news in a safe and comfortable setting and give them ample time to digest and respond to the news before expecting them to return to daily activities and responsibilities. It is also best when the discussion is free of blame and both parents act as though they are on the same page.
Another crucial piece to disclosing divorce is telling all children at once, regardless of any significant age differences. It is best for siblings to be able to turn to one another and feel supported. Telling the kids at the same time also avoids any potential confusion or fear that the siblings may be separated as well as putting one or more children in an inappropriate role of “secret keeper” from other sibling(s).
If you have a mix of younger and older children, then keep the announcement simple and free of large words or jargon. You can have further discussions with older children who have more capacity to understand.
Lastly, it is important to have some solid details on how parenting time will be managed going forward and knowing when any major changes will take place (e.g., when a parent may be moving out and where). When the news hits the children, their whole world and foundation will be shook and having some details worked out before having the divorce talk will help the children feel like they have some idea of what to expect and what a new normal may begin to look like. Because it can take some time to determine these details, disclosing the divorce to children may take longer than expected or desired and parents may feel uncomfortable withholding such big information.
However, it is far better that adults manage the discomfort of not communicating the divorce decision while determining at least short-term parenting time and custody arrangements, then it is for children to be burdened by an intense sense of insecurity and instability while family as they know it is changing.
These top 3 tips tend to be useful for almost every family and there are other tips that can be helpful to keep in mind when having the divorce talk depending on circumstances and the makeup of your family. Since every family is different, it can be beneficial for the divorcing parents to work with a therapist to help develop a tailored plan to announce divorce to the kids and to help the parents identify and agree on parenting time options. Another benefit for divorcing parents working together in this way is that it can help set the stage for creating a cooperative coparenting relationship.
At Mended Families we specialize in helping adults and children navigate divorce and have prepared a special therapy package for parents needing help on how to disclose divorce to kids. Visit the “How to Tell the Kids” page for more information on the short-term therapy package.