Going through a separation or divorce can be a painful and confusing time for many. It can be especially difficult when there are children involved. As a parent, you may be concerned about when is the best time to have a conversation with your children and what information to share – or not to share.
Planning for the conversation
Dr. Herrick, psychotherapist, recommends telling your children 2 to 3 weeks before the separation. In an ideal situation, both parents will be present for the conversation. If this is not possible, it is important for the parent present to not speak poorly of the parent who is absent to ensure that the child does not feel pressured to take sides Once a general timeline has been set, it is time to decide on the logistics of where and when the conversation will take place. According to a research study done by Heather Westberg, the memory of this conversation, and how they were first told, sticks with children. It is important to spend some time thinking about the environment in which to talk with your children. For example, selecting a quiet, neutral location during a time of day when you will have some uninterrupted time together is best.
Rules of engagement during the conversation
After preparing the environment, comes the weighty task of actually having the conversation. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind while talking with your child…
1. Present as a united front.
Be respectful of one another and make it clear that while the both of you may disagree on various things, you do agree on doing what is best for your children.
2. Keep it simple and honest.
Do not share more information than the children need to know (e.g., financial arrangements, the details of your disagreements), but answer your children’s questions honestly when they ask difficult questions like, “What does divorce mean?” “Why are you leaving each other?”
3. Share the plan going forward.
Share with your children some of the major changes that will be happening. How long until mom or dad moves out? Where will the children be staying? What school will they attend? How often will they see each parent? Also be sure to reassure your children on things that will remain the same (e.g., school, neighborhood, Sunday dinners at Grandma’s, etc.)
4. Emphasize that this is your decision.
Make sure your children know that separation or divorce is not their fault and has nothing to do with them. Nothing they can do – good or bad, will influence the decision.
5. Stay true to your word.
In your conversation, make sure your children hear how much you love them. After the conversation, keep your word in showing your love to your children by spending time with them, encouraging them, showing affection and acting in their best interests.
6. Be prepared for unexpected reactions.
Your child may respond in a number of ways – anger, confusion, sadness, relief, or they may even appear not to respond at all. Rather than pushing your child to feel differently (i.e., “look at the bright side!”), remain curious and accepting of what they are feeling. Let your child know that it is okay to be sad, angry, confused, or relieved. Help them find healthful ways to share and express these feelings (e.g., drawing, journaling, being active, talking…)
Many parents are, understandably, concerned about how their child will cope with separation or divorce. While this will likely be a challenging time for both parents and children, ensuring that your children know they can come to you with their questions and feelings will help them through the process. For more resources on how to support your child through the divorce process, check out our Scoop It! Page.
Supervised by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT-S