For many parents, the ‘divorce conversation’ is one of the most difficult conversations you can have with your children. For the children, there is often a lot of confusion, hurt and insecurity at hearing the news, and it is the parent’s job to try and ease their transition to this new change.
Here we have compiled some top tips to help you know how to explain divorce to your children:
1. Act Like a Team
Our experts recommend you sit down and tell your children together. Even if only one parent does the talking, it’s important to show a united front and that you both emphasise that your love for your children hasn’t changed one bit.
2. Plan the Discussion
Before you sit down, prepare for how you will tell the children (together), and anticipate how you’ll answer some of their difficult questions.
3. Stick to the Basics
If your marriage is ending, experts recommend telling your children simple facts. You can explain to them that their parents won’t be living together anymore, but both still love their children. Talk calmly and try to keep an anger-free tone of voice.
4. Don’t Blame
Regardless of what happened and why, simplicity is important when first breaking the news — even if it’s not the whole truth. Avoid giving your children sordid details about the reason for a split, like infidelity, mental health problems or alcohol or drug abuse. Parents should choose their words carefully and use neutral, blame-free language.
Because children often see themselves as an extension of their parents, blaming one parent is commonly seen as a put-down to the child. You could instead say something like “Your mum and I have decided that we don’t love each other the same as we did when you were born and now we’re going to live in separate homes”.
The key is to focus on the change that’s going on, and stress as clearly as you can that it’s not the child’s fault. A transition is happening and their emotional needs must be focused on — their safety and happiness and the fact they feel loved needs to be a priority. If your children ask why, parents could add: “Sometimes adults become unhappy with how they’re living their lives and decide they want to live a different way.”
5. Be Age Appropriate
A 6-year-old is likely to accept your explanation without asking for a detailed reason.
If a 10-to-12-year-old asks why, they are probably ready to hear a true, but non-blaming reason. If a mother found another partner for instance, she could say: ‘I have to move on and do different things with my life’. It’s not necessary to be so blunt as to say: ‘I’ve found another person’.
Teenagers may have figured out the reason for a split or asked for an explanation. Older children can handle the sometimes-ugly truth, but parents should still take care to avoid exaggerating the negative aspects of how a spouse has behaved.
6. Say It’s Okay to be Sad
Parents should let children know they’re there to answer questions, and that it’s all right if they’re feeling down. You could say something along the lines of: ‘We’re all feeling sad about this transition, but sometimes difficult decisions need to be made in order to do what’s best for family life’.
7. Focus on What Stays the Same
No matter the age of the child, reinforce how things will be staying normal. A child who is 10 or 11 can understand an explanation like “we’re not going to be married, but we’re still your parents and we love you”.
8. Stress the Love
The reason for the conversation is to let your children know what’s happening, and to stress that they will still be loved. “We both love you and that’s going to continue, things may look different, but we’ll all get through this”.
9. Give Two Weeks’ Notice
Once plans are made for separate homes, children should be given about two weeks’ notice to process the information. And be sure to explain to your children how each parent will be involved in their life.
10. Use Small Doses
It may be best to talk to your children several times. Three 10-minute conversations are generally more effective than one half-hour talk. Once a split happens, there will be constant conversations as children move back and forth between their homes.
11. Involve the Nanny
If your child has a nanny, they may be faced with questions from their charges about your split. Talk to your nanny about your plans and how to answer the children’s queries. A nanny or regular babysitter becomes like an aunt or uncle or an older sibling in such a situation and can help reassure the children. If they see the nanny being okay with it, they will start to feel okay with it.
A nanny should reinforce the parents’ words that the children are very much loved, they shouldn’t place any blame and should be supportive of the child.
12. Talk About Other Divorces
If you’re happily married and your child hears about a celebrity split or learns that their best friend’s parents are getting divorced, you should address it. You can explain that divorce is something that happens for various reasons to some families, and reassure them that it’s not happening to theirs.
If they hear you fighting, though, and worry about divorce, you can tell them that fighting is a natural part of a real relationship and that it doesn’t necessarily mean something devastating like divorce will happen to their own family.
It’s not easy on anyone, but if you explain divorce calmly and rationally to children, while constantly reassuring them that they are loved, everything will go much more smoothly.