Kids First #2: How to Talk to Children About Separation & Divorce

This is the second in a multi-part series on practical steps parents can take when talking to children about divorce. These blog posts are based on the book “Kids First: What Kids Want Grown-Ups to Know about Separation and Divorce”.  The book “Kids First” is a collection of the knowledge gained by the staff and volunteers at the Kids First Center over the 25 years they have been working with families going through separation and divorce.

In the first post, we talked about what separation feels like to kids and advice on how to listen to children so they feel heard and secure. In this post, we will talk about how to tell your children about the divorce and how to start the co-parenting process.

Telling Kids about Separation and Divorce

Almost every child of divorce vividly remembers when their parents told them they were getting a divorce. While a life-changing event for everybody, the effect it has on children and how they remember it largely depends on how you and your spouse approach the conversation.

During separation and divorce, parents are often dealing with their own overwhelming feelings which can make it difficult to focus on what’s best for the children. Time can help parents gain control over their own lives and over emotions. Consequently, planning for telling the children about separation or divorce can take a longer time, time much-needed for self-healing to occur first. Some parents may need professional assistance, not only to prepare them for life after divorce but also for how to tell the children.

All parents, while negotiating a divorce and separation need to focus objectively on the well-being of the children. Parents need to watch out for perceptions of their children’s views about divorce. Not surprisingly, parents who want a divorce may view the children’s adjusting well. Parents who do not want the divorce, often have the opinion that the children are not adjusting well.

Children often tell us what we want to hear in order to protect us. Parents may have preconceptions that are flawed because children tend to tell us what we want to hear. To avoid this type of bias, parents need to take cues from their children’s behavior. Working with a therapist or parenting coordinator can help you see the situation clearly.

Take the time to plan your discussion. Here are some guidelines for telling children about divorce:

  • Inform them together, be united in the discussion
  • Do not blame each other
  • Reassure their safety and love
  • Tell children what is certain
  • Do not give information unless it’s agreed upon by both parents
  • Limit personal details
  • Avoid informing the children during holidays or birthdays
  • Avoid telling the children that everything is better this way
  • Be are sure to reinforce the fact that the divorce is not their fault
  • Listen and allow space and time for them to express how they feel

How to Talk to Children of Different Ages about Divorce

Adults need to remember that children – especially young children – do not yet have the tools to understand their feelings or express and manage their emotions. While the first conversation about divorce should happen with all the children together, after that it is appropriate to talk with children individually depending on their developmental level.

Kids want to maintain what is familiar, comfortable and stable. Younger children have difficulty understanding time. They may ask questions about when things are going to happen yet struggle to understand what your answers mean. For example, “We’re getting a divorce in six months,” feels like this weekend to them. In my experience, it’s a good idea to use a calendar to show them when things are going to happen with them.

Older children have completely different questions that can be quite detailed and specific. Be prepared to answer questions like:

  • Where will I live?
  • Where will you live?
  • Will I see both of you?
  • Will I stay at the same school?
  • What will happen on my birthday?
  • Do you still love each other?
  • Is this only temporary?

Learning How to Co-parent

Dealing with the sadness, grief, and anger that come up during divorce can be overwhelming but when parents demonstrate adaptive coping skills, children are less likely to worry about them. A strong, appropriate support system can help parents gain control over their changing lives after the divorce.

Your relationship with your former spouse is not over after your divorce. Because parenting is forever, your relationship shifts; it doesn’t go away. Creating a successful co-parenting relationship can greatly reduce the amount of stress and conflict for your children.

Successful co-parents:

  • Take a respectful, low-key, formal approach to interacting with each other
  • Are careful with verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Say positive things about the other parent which reinforces that it’s okay for the child to love the other parent
  • Keep a positive attitude when listening to their children speak about the other parent
  • Allow reasonable access to the other parent
  • Do not make plans that interfere with the other parent’s time with the children
  • Make regular appointments by phone, email, or in person, to discuss the children’s issues
  • Agree to disagree, and resume discussions later if one parent becomes angry
  • Respect each other’s privacy and do not ask personal questions
  • Do not ask the children private information about the other parent
  • Do not stop communicating because non-communication is a form of fighting

Sometimes one parent drops out of the picture or refuses to co-parent cooperatively. When this happens, accepting it and doing your best to work with circumstances as they are can be the lowest stress option. If co-parenting is impossible, reinforcing to your children that you love them and will always be there for them can make a huge difference in how they deal with the divorce over the long haul.

Learn More

To learn more about how divorce mediation can help your case, contact any of our Divorce Attorney Mediators or Certified Divorce Financial Analysts at CT Divorce Mediation Centers. Divorce and Family Mediation and Collaborative Law are all we do. We have offices in Madison, New Haven, Cheshire, West Hartford, Glastonbury, West Hartford, and Windsor, CT. To find out more information or to schedule a consultation with our divorce experts, call us at (860) 986-1141.

DISCLAIMER:This publication is not meant to constitute legal, accounting, financial, investment advisory, or other professional advice. If legal, financial, investment advisory or other professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person such as CT Divorce Mediation center, should be sought.