How or when do you tell kids about a separation or divorce? This is a question I often get asked in mediation. In some cases, parents work with a therapist who helps them talk this through. More often, though, parents must navigate this question on their own.
I’m not a counselor or psychologist or social worker but I do have over 15 years of experience working with families in mediation, many of whom need help discussing the particulars of sharing information with children about a separation or divorce. Regardless of the age of the children, I think there are some basic things for parents to keep in mind when deciding the how, when and where of breaking the news of a separation or divorce to kids.*
1) Get on the same page.
Parents must be in agreement that a separation or divorce is happening. If separating, parents must be in agreement about what this actually means. In other words, is this a trial separation where parents will reevaluate in six months, or is the separation a precursor to the ultimate, inevitable end of the relationship? Parents need to be honest with themselves and each other about this before the conversation with the children takes place. Likewise, if a divorce is definitely happening, both people need to be clear about this before the kids become involved. If one parent spends one night on the couch or in a hotel, and parents don’t know what’s next, there is no need to tell kids one parent is leaving the other. Same goes for when one parent and the kids take a month long “vacation” to grandma’s house. Wait and figure it out as adults first. Are you both certain that you are separating and/or divorcing? Do you agree on the timeline? Do you know at least on a short-term basis where you will each live? If you're staying in the house together for some period of time, where will you each be in the home so that you have some physical space? Figure out what you can first without involving the children. Parents need to be on the same page about their relationship first and foremost and they need to have a simple, short-term plan. Kids need boundaries so even if you feel out of control (a normal feeling to have) the kids need to experience from you that there will be no disruption in their care.
2) Truth, truthiness and everything in between.
It’s not uncommon for parents to come into mediation and share the following: “I don’t lie to my kids” or “I always tell my kids the truth.” When you were together did you tell the kids how often you and the other parent had sex? Of course not! In fact, that’s not only cringe worthy, it’s extremely inappropriate. So what makes you think it’s appropriate to tell the kids that the other parent had an affair? Kids don’t need to know the particulars of why your relationship ended. When you were married did you talk to the kids about how much you paid rent or the cost of the mortgage or how broke you were when you were helping support Grandma after she got sick? Kids need to learn financial responsibility but they don’t need adult financial stress. Kids do not need to know about the other parent’s gambling addiction or how a parent isn't helping support the family financially. Those are adult matters and they need to remain between the adults. By the way, grandparents and aunties and uncles and family friends need to keep their mouths shut also. If you or another adult in your child’s life is tempted to “tell the truth,” seriously consider for whom you are sharing that information. Is it something essential that your child must know for his or her own safety and well-being? If not, you are probably sharing it to make yourself look better, to make the other parent look bad in the eyes of the children, or to try and hurt the other parent. Let me break something to you. If you talk badly about the other parent to the children you will hurt your kids and hurt your own relationship with your children. I know this because the kids I meet tell me this. It doesn't matter if your kids are four, twelve or seventeen: they don’t need to know the details of why the relationship ended or why you and the other parent hate one another nor do they need to know all the reasons you think the other parent is in the wrong. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that one person needs to be blamed or shamed to the kids. Even if there’s blame between the two of you, it will only hurt your children if you pull them into it. Yes, some kids developmentally want to know “whose fault it is” because given their age they can’t yet hold the space for nuance and layered responsibility. Just because their brains want to organize things into right and wrong does not mean you have to feed that fire. You are adults and you should be able to recognize that relationships end for all sorts of complicated reasons. Since you are the adults, even if there is blame between you, you should be mature enough to keep this away from the kids. Parents need to communicate as a united front that they still respect each other (and fake it until you make it if necessary) and require of the children that they also continue to respect both parents.
3) Okay, so how and when do we tell them?
Ideally, parents will talk to kids all together: both parents in the same room with all children present, regardless of the kids' ages. There’s no need to tell kids of different ages at different times or in different ways because you will be sharing the same essential information with all of them. Also, why put pressure on one child to keep a secret from another? That's what you'll be doing if you don't tell all the kids at once. They need to trust and depend on one another now more than ever. Before you talk to the kids together, you and the other parent need to agree on what exactly you plan to say and who will say what. It can often be helpful to practice this with one another in advance. When preparing to tell them, make sure that you choose a time of day when the kids are well rested and well fed. Things should feel generally relaxed and nobody should have to go somewhere immediately following the conversation. So, for example, don’t tell them on a school night. If they have a big test or sporting event or recital then it’s best to wait until that's over. If you and your children have busy, active lives then of course it will be difficult finding the perfect moment. Let yourself off the hook because perfect moments don’t exist. Keep it simple. The conversation should take place in a private setting that is comfortable to all members of the family. Plan enough time for the kids to express their feelings and to ask you questions and for you all to have some regular parent/family time afterwards or for the kids to have some time alone if that’s what's needed. By the way, different kids may need different things at this point so consider this when planning the when, where and how so that you can help meet all of their individual needs. If you have a lot of children this may be difficult but that's why there's two of you and that's why you're telling them all at once since siblings can be very supportive to one another under such circumstances. It shouldn't feel rushed and it should be planned and spoken by parents together, not spontaneously expressed by one parent out of anger.
4) What should we tell them?
Simply tell them some or all of the following:
· This is not your fault.
· We both love you and will always love you.
· You did nothing to cause this.
· You will still spend time with both of us.
· You will still get to __________(their favorite activities they enjoy doing with each parent).
· You will still see _______________ (grandparents, aunts, uncles, other family).
· We will do our best to help you keep your friendships with ____________ (their best friends).
· We will do our best to keep you involved in _____________ (activities they participate in).
· You will remain in your same school OR We are doing our best to work out where you will be for school and will let you know as soon as we know; we are trying as much as possible to keep things the same for you OR We plan to enroll you at ______ school starting _____. We have an appointment for you to visit it on ___________. You can talk to ________ or _________ who are familiar with the school and can tell you about it.
5) What questions will they ask and how do we respond?
First of all, think about possible questions and answers in advance and get on the same page about how you might respond. You can’t anticipate everything but you should have some idea of the types of things that might worry your kids. Most importantly, you and the other parent need to agree on your answers. Here are some possible questions to consider that kids might ask:
Do you still love each other?
Will you get back together some day?
Will I get to stay in our house?
Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
Who will we live with?
Will we have to talk to a judge?
Whose decision was it? (i.e.: whose fault is it)
Will I have a step-mom/step-dad someday?
Will I get to stay at my school?
Why did this happen?
Who knows about it?
Instead of asking questions, some kids might shrug and play with a favorite toy. They might sob uncontrollably. They might rage in anger. They need to be given the space for any of these reactions. There is no right or wrong reaction for a kid to have when receiving this information. If you are really concerned about them, then you could set up in advance some time for them to meet with a counselor or support group for kids. If your kids do ask the above questions, avoid blaming each other in your answers. Kids are egocentric. They want to know how this affects them. Focus on that and if you don’t know the answers such as how this will impact where they attend school you are allowed to say “we don’t know” because that is one truth that is appropriate for your kids to hear. Tell them you are working on it and will let them know once you know more. Remember point 2 above and focus on point 4 and repeat. Don't ask them over and over if they're okay. They will do what they need to do and they will talk to you if or when they are ready. Create space for them and listen. Always listen. Kids whose parents are separating or divorcing need to know that their parents love them and that they’ll be taken care of no matter what happens. Some things are firmly adult matters and you do not need to answer such questions; you can redirect them to what is most important. Tell them that everyone’s doing their best, and that you both love them. You’ll always love them.
*These ideas presume that parents and children are safe and that parents are able to negotiate on their own behalf (issues related to domestic violence and/or child abuse are too complicated to cover here).