Having the divorce talk with your child may be tough, but it is necessary for them to understand what is going on, know what to expect in the coming months, and most of all, feel secure about their future. The way to approach this topic will depend largely on the age of your child; different age groups will relate to and understand the topic differently. Most experts agree the time to talk to the kids is a few weeks before the divorce becomes final. Here is a guide to help you through this conversation:
The Complex Emotions of Divorce for Children
While divorce is not easy for either parent, it is an emotional experience that may have the child feeling that their entire world is collapsing. It can be traumatic for children to watch the relationship between their parents completely dissolve, the foundation which they stand on crumbling around them. It can lead to intense feelings of shock, anger, uncertainty, and even guilt.
It is extremely important to understand that your child’s emotions are 100% normal and valid during this time, as trying to downplay them or simply trying to fix them will only make the process worse for your child. You can help reduce the trauma and pain your child feels during this time by placing your child’s well-being at the top of your priority list.
What Does My Child Need From Me During A Divorce?
Your child has many emotional needs that need to be considered and addressed during the divorce process. Ensuring that your child is protected from the ugliness of divorce should be the top priority. Your child needs the following:
Make Sure Your Child Knows That They Have Your Support: Regardless of whether you have joint custody, visitation, or sole custody, your child needs to know that you will stay an active part of their lives. Make sure you are calling, texting, and continuing to be a part of your child’s life. When a parent suddenly becomes uninvolved, it can make them feel unimportant or unloved.
Do Not Fight In Front of Your Child: The divorce process is between you and your spouse, not between you, your child and your spouse. Your child does not need to be part of the arguments nor do they need to hear your anger toward your spouse. Work hard to keep arguments in private where your child cannot hear them and do your best to act cordial when your spouse is around. Fighting in front of your child can lead to guilt and emotional stress for your child.
Keep Your Emotions In Check When Your Child Is Spending Time With the Other Parent: Jealousy, when your child is spending time with the other parent, is common. While these emotions are understandable, it is not your child’s responsibility to make you feel better. Make sure that you are supporting the relationship your child has with the other parent. This will prevent that child from feeling like they have to take sides or love one parent more than the other.
Communicate Directly With the Other Parent: Do not use your child as the means for communication. If you have a question, comment, or concern you need to address with the other parent, make sure you are contacting them directly. When you have your child giving messages back and forth, it can make them feel isolated or uncomfortable.
Watch Your Language Around Your Child: A lot of emotions are running high during this time, so it is important to make sure any unkind or off-the-cuff comments are not said around your child. Find another adult or a counselor to talk to, so you can address those emotions in private. Speaking unkindly about the other parent in front of the child may make them feel that you are expecting them to take your side.
Remember That Your Child Loves and Cares for Both of You: You and your spouse are the center of your child’s world. It is important to understand that despite your circumstances, that hasn’t changed and will never change. Your child can count on both of you to help raise them, teach them what is important, and how to treat others when there is an issue. Try your best to set a strong example for them and be the support they need.
How Do I Tell My Children About the Divorce?
Depending on the age of your child, there are different ways to approach and address the issue. Make sure that you are keeping your talk at an age-appropriate level. Younger kids will not understand the nuances of a divorce of the implications like a teenager would. Here is how to handle the talk with the different age groups:
Talking to Children under Five Years of Age
Infants and toddlers don’t need a lot of explanation; simple, basic explanations work best. Explaining which parent will be moving elsewhere, where the child will be living, and how their routine will change is likely enough. Answer any questions they have and plan on a few conversations as the divorce proceedings progress. Kids at this age are extremely adaptable and just need to know that they are cared for and loved, no matter where they are living.
Talking to Elementary School Kids
Children from the ages of 6-11 years of age are going to need and want reassurance about where they will be living and how the divorce will impact them. Prepare your children by talking about the basics of divorce and field their questions. These questions can be about “who will drive them to school” or “do they get two rooms.” It is also a good idea to notify their teachers and other trusted adults, so they have a strong support system.
It is also important to note that kids at this age may already have felt a change in their home environment before the divorce was mentioned. They may also know other children whose parents have gone through a divorce. You know your children better than anyone, so make sure you are giving them the level of detail that seems appropriate for them. Stay positive and talk to them about what they can expect. If you address their emotions you can help them through the stress, and make sure they know that they are not to blame. It may take several conversations after the initial one to ensure that they have a thorough understanding and feel secure about their future.
Talking to Teenagers 12 and Up
Older kids have a far greater ability to understand what is going on and may have pointed questions for you. While they are less likely to think they are at fault, they are far more likely to assign blame to one parent or the other. Your divorce is happening right at the most chaotic and hormonal time: puberty, so expect some anger, irritability, and sadness to come into play.
They may seem older and more independent, but this group needs support just as much as your younger kids. Letting coaches, tutors, and other adults know what is going on can help build a supportive community for your teen; so can making sure they know what to expect and set up a stable routine in the home.
What Do I Say to My Children?
It can be difficult to approach the topic with your children. Here is a guide to help you nail down the main points:
Tell the Truth: Remember the truth needs to be shaped in an age-appropriate way, but this is the most important part. Lying to your child will only add to the confusion and can lead to intense bitterness once the truth comes out. You can simply say “we can’t get along anymore.” Also, ensure that you make it clear while parents may not get along, they will never stop loving their kids.
Make Sure You Tell Them That You Love Them: While this may sound simple, letting your child know that you love them and your love for them hasn’t changed is a huge comfort to them.
Address the Changes: As mentioned earlier, make sure your child knows what to expect so that they have time and the understanding to adjust and prepare for the upcoming changes.
Make Sure You Have a Caring Divorce Attorney on Your Side
Divorce is an unsettling time for kids, but by taking the time to talk them through the process and reassure them about their well-being and future, you can minimize the impact it has on your kids. If both parents can provide a unified front and answer questions without strife or assigning blame, the kids will benefit as well. Get the help you need with your separation and divorce; contact our office to learn more about the next steps. Alison Grant, Attorney at Law, is dedicated to helping your entire family through this difficult time and ensuring that you get the fresh start you deserve.