Announcing that you are getting divorced to your children is one of the most difficult aspects of the whole divorce process. Children are looking for security, and a divorce obviously disrupts the family foundations on which the child has grown up. It is, however, a very important conversation because it gives parents the opportunity to try and lay the foundations for a healthy new start for the whole family.
What is the best way to break the news?
As far as possible, it is recommended that both parents sit down together to calmly break the news of their divorce. To avoid potential sources of conflict, both parents should agree in advance on what they are going to say. This is a time when children need reassurance, and the best way to do this is to show your children that you are still part of the same team when it comes to bringing up your children, even if this is not true, or even if only one parent really wants this.
If it's not possible for both parents to be present for this conversation, the one who is more present with the children can break the news.
What to say
What you say will depend on your child's age and maturity. You don't want to overwhelm them with details, and it's generally better to let them ask questions rather than trying to give them a lot of information they're not ready for.
Children sometimes wonder about the date of the changes. Of course, some divorces are amicable and quick, but others take a long time. Try to give them an idea of the timetable. Perhaps you could say something like: "We intend to get divorced. It may take some time to work out the details, but for now, consider us divorced". If you already have an idea of what the transition will be like, it can be reassuring for the children to hear some of the details.
If there is a disagreement about custody, you can say something like: "We both love you very much and we want to be close to you. We're trying to work out what we think is best for you. We don't agree on this, but we're going to work it out as adults, with the help of other adults".
A general principle is to avoid discussing financial matters with the children or sharing information that reflects badly on one of the spouses. Unnecessary conflict should be avoided as far as possible in order to preserve a healthy parent-child relationship, which is very important for the children's well-being.
If there has already been a lot of parental conflict and anger in the home, which your child has witnessed, you can explain it in the following way:
"You might have noticed there's been more arguing. Sometimes we feel really angry. Sometimes we say things because we're angry about the situation, but nobody's angry with you. These situations are complicated and we're going to work them out between us. It's not up to you to solve anger problems. There are other adults who can help you deal with anger. There are lawyers, judges and therapists. It's not up to you to help us".
Emphasise that the separation or divorce is a decision taken by adults and is not due to the child's actions or behaviour. Reassure children that both parents still love them and will continue to be involved in their lives.
How can children react?
Children can react in different ways to the news of a divorce. If there has been a lot of arguing at home, some children may feel relieved to hear about the divorce. But it's more common for children to feel upset or even guilty. Whatever your children's reaction, it's important to listen to them and take their concerns seriously, while making it clear to them that the divorce is not their fault and that, as parents, you will do your best to help them feel safe and loved.
Children often start to worry about the future. Teenagers can sometimes worry quickly about the possibility of their parents remarrying. If this question is raised, you can say something like: "Maybe, maybe not. Of course I want to be happy and this could contribute to my happiness. But you are still my child and no one else can replace that".
For more immediate concerns, such as who will take the child to football training or what the new bedroom will look like, it can be very reassuring to get clear answers. If you haven't worked out the details yet, tell your child that you're working on the answer but will let them know as soon as you can. In the meantime, you can look for other ways to help your child feel safe, for example by posting a temporary timetable in the kitchen.
Throughout the process and beyond
Create a safe, non-judgmental space for children to express their feelings about the separation or divorce. Let them know that it's normal to feel sad, angry, confused or scared. Encourage open communication and active listening, allowing them to share their thoughts and feelings without trying to resolve or reject them.
Let them know that it's normal to feel conflicting emotions and that their feelings are valid. Reassure them that their emotions will change and evolve over time.
As far as possible, maintain their routine, including school, extra-curricular activities and time spent with friends and family. Predictability can provide a sense of security during a period of transition.
Children may have misconceptions or concerns about separation or divorce. Answer their questions honestly and give them age-appropriate explanations. Correct any misunderstandings and reassure them about their well-being and plans for care and support.
Despite the divorce and possible tensions between the 2 parents, try to maintain open and respectful communication about the child's needs and well-being. This involves consistent parenting strategies, joint decision-making and reducing conflict in the presence of the child.
Teach children coping strategies to manage their emotions during this difficult time. These may include deep breathing exercises, journaling, drawing, physical activity or talking to a trusted adult. Help them find healthy ways to express and manage their feelings.
Encourage children to seek support from trusted adults, such as extended family members, friends or school counsellors. Give them the opportunity to make contact with peers who may be going through similar experiences. Support groups or therapies can also be beneficial for children, as they allow them to manage their emotions in a safe and supportive environment.
If a child is finding it very difficult to cope with separation or divorce, consideration should be given to involving a professional therapist who specialises in working with children. A therapist can provide additional support and advice tailored to the child's individual needs.
Patience, understanding and compassion are essential in helping children to understand and accept these important changes in their lives.