You or someone you know may be getting divorced and haven’t told the kids yet.
- How do you know when is the right time?
- How do you know what to say?
- How do you know how to deal with their response?
These are the most common questions and concerns of separating parents.
Here is a brief guide to support you or a friend in need:
Choose your timing. Though there’s never a “good” time, there are not-so-good times: school days, right before you head off to work, just as your child is going to dance class or sport practice, or just before bed. When she hears the news, she may suddenly feel unsafe and alone. She needs you to be there. Choose a moment when you’ll be together afterward to offer plenty of hugs and reassurances.
Tell her together. Even if you disagree about everything else, try to agree on what to tell your child, for her sake. Ideally, you want to deliver the news as a team. Telling her together avoids confusion. It helps preserve your child’s sense of trust in both parents.
Keep it simple. Speak in terms your child will understand, limiting the initial explanation to no more than a few key sentences.
For example, you might start with “Mommy and Daddy have done a lot of thinking,” then explain, for example, that Daddy is going to get a new apartment/home. Aim to know what the visitation days and times will be before the conversation so you can share those details. It will comfort your child to know she’ll continue to see both of you and that there’s a plan.
Tell your child that it’s not her fault. Children may blame themselves for the breakup, even if they don’t say so. Your child might think the change is happening because she didn’t do something properly like clean her room or do as well in school as might have been expected. She might also assume some responsibility for trying to fix the problem.
Tell her flat out that the divorce is an adult decision and has nothing to do with her.
Avoid the blame game. However angry you might be, don’t blame each other for the breakup, and avoid arguing in front of your child. Also keep to yourself any details about issues that didn’t work in the marriage.
Sometimes one parent may feel so upset that they want to tell the child about the other spouse’s egregious or erroneous behavior. Refrain from this. Children will take this as a betrayal — or worse, criticism of them. For example, if one calls the other a “liar” or “cheat,” they begin to see themselves, half the product of that parent, as half a liar, half a cheat.
Answers to common questions from kids about divorce:
“What’s a divorce?”
Your basic response could go something like: “Divorce means Mommy and Daddy won’t live together anymore. But we’ll always be your parents, and we’ll always love you.”Gently try to find out what she believes or knows about divorce in general and what friends or schoolmates they know whose parents are divorced. This will help you understand the notions she has about divorce and what fears she may harbor about losing friends, families, a parent, a home, or social standing. While divorce is common, it can be awkward for your child at a time when kids are comparing themselves to each other and fretting about fitting in.“Why are you getting divorced?”
Don’t go into too much detail and keep the emphasis on “we.” Avoid saying anything like “We don’t love each other anymore,” because your child might assume you can also “fall out of love” with her. You might say, “we work better together living apart and we decided we would do what is best for everyone.”
“Will I still see Grandma and Grandpa? (or other family or friends) Let her know what to expect regarding seeing relatives. Ideally you can say with authenticity that she will continue to see relatives as has been in the past and even that on holidays like Christmas, Passover, Eid, Kwanza or the like, there may be times when you spend it all together.
“Where will I sleep?” At this age, your child will have a lot of questions about how her daily life will be affected: “Will I still go to my same school? Who’s going to take me to dance/skiing/soccer?” These are very real concerns for a child, so go over the details. For example, “You’ll still live with Mommy here in our house. You’ll have a home at Daddy’s new house; you’ll have your own special bedroom.” Depending on what you agree on, you can tell her she can be part of searching for the new place and/or picking decorative items, etc.
“Who will take care of Daddy (or Mommy, depending on which parent is moving out)?” Your child might have a sense of empathy that’s developed enough for her to actually worry about the parent who is moving out.
Reassure her that the other parent will be just fine. You might say, “Daddy might miss you when he’s not with you, but he won’t be sad because he would see you again very soon.”
Pour on the love. Divorce is difficult for children to understand and accept. While your child adjusts, she’ll need a lot of your affection and attention. Resist the urge to talk constantly on the phone or let TV become the sitter. Give her more snuggle time or extra time during bedtime routine. Just as you benefit from your support network of relatives and friends now more than ever, your child needs extra hugs and kisses from you.
Keep talking. Even after the news has sunk in, be prepared to go over the same explanations and answer questions again and again, for weeks or even months. Make sure she knows that you’re open to questions about the divorce any time, even if what you really want is to stop talking about it. One way to keep the lines of communication open is to read kids’ books like Ricci’s Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids, or Lallouz’s The Case of the Clown Who Lives in Two Tents.
Keep routines consistent. Sometimes divorce can make it difficult to maintain routines or even keep the house tidy. But continuing a child’s regular schedule, in Mom’s house and Dad’s house, makes children feel safe. As much as possible, make basic mealtimes and other rituals the same between the two households. Make sure the kids keep going to school and any classes or practices — the more things remain the same for your child, the more stable she’ll feel.
Be aware of signs of trouble. Your child may have difficulties adjusting to visitation and custody arrangements. Look for signs like misbehavior or withdrawal, particularly after a visit with the other parent. To open up a dialogue without putting words in your child’s mouth, say something like, “I’m wondering if you’re missing your Mom right now.” Your child might just need time to transition from one household to the next or a safe way to vent.
Consider seeing a family coach or counselor to guide you and your child through this transition. Other parents have said it is the best thing they could have done as it gives a safe place for each parent, personally, to have support, and for children to ask questions or talk about things, without worrying about upsetting their parents.
Make a point of remaining positive. If your divorce means, as it often does, that you’re taking a financial hit and they can no longer have every toy they want or take expensive vacations, let them know you’ll still do lots of fun things together.
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