Ending a marriage is a decision that most people struggle with for a significant period of time. For most, it is a decision that is made far more difficult when children are involved. For couples that are contemplating divorce, the thought of now causing distress and major change to the little hearts and minds of the children they brought into this world can be unfathomable. The good news is that, if done with a well-thought out action plan for the transition, their children will likely be just fine. Our age-by-age guide for addressing divorce with your children can make this transition easier and more effective without causing major distress during this already stressful time.
Children are, for the most part, resilient. They can often adapt to change, even major change; however, if adults are not willing to put their emotional differences for each other aside and focus on what really matters – their children – then there likely will be struggles ahead. As a family law attorney, parenting coordinator, and guardian ad litem, I cannot emphasize enough to parents that this discussion is one of the most critical times for children – it is as we say in sports – an ultimate “game-changer.” So, when the decision has been made to separate and divorce, what do you as parents say to your children?
Regardless of your own perception of fault over why the marriage is ending – parents should never cast blame. Children don’t ever need to hear, regardless of age, that one parent or the other is the cause of their family breaking up. They want to love you both equally and they don’t ever want to feel guilty about expressing love or affection for either parent at any time. Some of what you say depends on how old your children are but the general common theme that should be reiterated throughout the first and every subsequent conversation with your children, as it relates to your separation, should be the same: “This decision or change is not your fault, and no matter what Mommy and Daddy both love you.”
Parents with Younger Children
For parents with younger children, the general adage “less is more” is a good concept to embrace when talking to children about divorce. Younger children typically handle change well, especially if that change is presented in a positive way. Ideally, parents should sit down with their children and share the news together. Having a plan before you sit down for “the talk” is important. Even young children will want to know, “Where are mommy or daddy going to live, and where will we live?” Having a plan in place will help streamline and reduce any stress that you may perceive. Be prepared to answer some of their basic questions when you have the first conversation.
Along with who and where, children will want to know when the change is going to happen. If one parent is moving out, or if the house is being sold, and both parents are relocating to new homes, children should know the answers to these two big changes early. If they ask why, the answer can be simple and the same regardless of age: “Mommy and Daddy decided that we are better at being friends than being married.” Remember, every answer to every question, including this one, should always end with the same common theme: “Even though some things will change, the one thing that will never change is that we both love you very much.”
Elementary School Age Children
Elementary school age children will likely ask questions that focus on their own wants and needs. They will want to know that, despite the change, they will still be able to see their friends, go to the same school, and participate in their extracurricular activities. They want to know how much of “their world” will change based on the decision to live in two separate places. As much as possible, think about these things in advance and have answers prepared. If any questions arise that you, as parents, feel the children do not need to know at that time (or ever), simply revert back to your theme or common response, “Those things are adult issues, you don’t need to worry about that, but what is important to remember is that we both love you no matter what.”
For older children, one of the most important things to remember is that children are still children. While they are older, and they may seem more mature, they are still not adults. Even if they are high school age, when it comes to divorce, your children are not your friends, and there is a need to maintain clear parent/child boundaries during the transition. I often see parents of older children make the mistake of oversharing. I gently reiterate that it is never appropriate to bash the other parent, and that they key, regardless of age, is to remind them that they are loved by both parents.
If it is not possible for the parents to talk to their children together, for whatever reason, then try to develop a plan together and a shared script, even if it is over email, about what to say and more importantly what not to say to the children when each parent talks with them separately. Yes, this can be easier said than done, but this approach may be necessary if the parents are geographically separated, domestic violence or other abuse has occurred, or if the process has already become an emotional “high-conflict” divorce as is described by various statutes. This plan of action takes time, it takes courage and strength, and it undoubtedly requires each parent to rise above their emotions for the sake of their children. It requires parents to resist every temptation and urge to say something negative or derogatory about the other parent to the children – regardless how their marriage ended.
Parents, when you are getting ready to talk to your children about separation and divorce, regardless of their age, remember this – you have had the gift of time – time to contemplate, discuss, debate, maybe even process this decision with a professional. Your children have not had that same luxury. Depending on their age, this discussion will likely to be the first time your children are hearing about divorce. Do yourself the favor now; Develop your plan, keep it simple, keep it child-friendly, and keep it neutral. They will need time, just like you, to process this change. While they will have more questions ahead, remember to not over share, don’t blame the other parent, reiterate that this is not their fault and remember to end with your common theme, “despite the changes, mommy and daddy both love you no matter what.”
Regardless of age, six or sixteen, children are children. When addressing divorce with your children, handle and approach with “kid gloves.” An experienced family law attorney, parenting coordinator, guardian ad litem, or therapist can all be the key in making this transition easier for both you, and your family.