boy standing between two parents

Caught In The Middle

Getting a divorce may be one of the most painful and stressful periods in your life, with feelings of hurt, pain, loss and anger, but telling your kids that you are going to divorce and why will likely be the hardest part of the entire divorce process. When it is done correctly, talking to your kids about the pending divorce can help your children cope with the sadness, confusion, anger and powerlessness that a child often feels during this very confusing and emotional time in their lives.

What Do Kids Need To Know?

As parents, our first instinct is to protect our children but in a divorce situation, many parents are hesitant to provide an explanation of exactly what is happening and why. Most parents don’t look forward to this conversation because they worry about how their children will react and are worried about controlling their own emotions. Parents often feel guilty about hurting their children’s adjustment, and may have fears that an older child or adolescent may blame or reject them. But despite your anxiety, all children need to know what’s happening, and how the separation will affect their lives. They need to be giving the opportunity to ask question about what is happening and, without going into any gory details, why.  Children who are told nothing are typically more frustrated and have a more difficult time working things out.

Although most parents try to hide the conflict with the other parent, they are often taken aback when the children are not surprised by the news. Even if there hasn’t been any fighting in front of them, children will often pick up on the tension and chilliness between parents. For those not witness to the fighting, an explanation can go a long way in helping them process the information. It’s important to be as forthcoming as possible, in an age appropriate way. For children, divorce can be stressful, sad, and confusing. At any age, kids may feel uncertain about what life will be like, or angry at the prospect of mom and dad splitting up for good.

Plan With Your Spouse Beforehand

When parents are divorcing, children are often afraid that they will lose one of their parents or that their parents will simply abandon them and they will have to somehow fend for themselves. Before speaking with your children, it is imperative that you and your spouse have a plan in place that you can outline to your children. Housing arrangements should be already made, a visitation schedule should be in place, they should know where they will go to school and who the dog will live with.

Tell Your Children Together

It is always best to tell your children together and while some issues may prevent this from happening, when at all possible, presenting a united front will help ease a child’s anxiety. It is important to be ready for a multitude of questions and try to stay calm as you answer every one.  It’s okay to be emotional and to let your child know that you are sad and that you realize they are sad too. Reassuring them that it’s not their fault and that you will always love them and be there for them is critical.

Avoid Placing Blame

Blaming or bad-mouthing your spouse damages and hurts children. Remember that your child’s relationship with their other parent is separate from yours, and you must respect their relationship by not saying or doing anything to create parental alienation between them. Also, do not make messengers out of your children. If you are unable to discuss things with your spouse about issues or problems with the divorce rationally, talk to someone who can act as a mediator between you, rather than putting your child in the position of feeling as though they must choose sides.

Provide Ongoing Support For Your Child

Even though the initial conversation will end, children need time to process the information. They may come back over the next days, weeks or even months to repeat questions, ask why and seek reassurance.  Try to stay calm as you repeat answers, provide reassurance that you still love them and that the divorce was not their fault.  Depending on their ages, this process may take a very long time.

Making sure that the school and daycare is aware of the situation is important. Having added support from family and friends who love the child is key as well.  Encourage the child to talk about the divorce as often as necessary, encourage them to keep a journal, having them talk to a counselor or take part in a groups for children of divorce may also be helpful.

The Big Picture

girls hugging mom

Support Your Child

There are many ways you can help your kids adjust to a divorce. Your patience, reassurance, and love can minimize the strain as children learn to cope with new circumstances. By providing routines kids can rely on, you remind children they can count on you for stability, structure, and care. And if you can maintain a working relationship with your ex, you can help kids avoid the stress that comes with watching parents in conflict. Such a transitional time is never without some measure of difficulty, but you can greatly reduce your children’s pain by making their happiness your top priority.