Telling your children that you and your partner have decided to separate brings with it, a whole host of new challenges. Ultimately, you are preparing them for a major upheaval in their lives, and whilst there are some fundamentals which remain true, regardless of the child’s age, the fact is that telling a 4-year-old that you’re getting divorced will be a very different experience from breaking that same news to a teenager.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at how to tell your children you’re getting divorced, depending upon their age. Before we do that, we’ll start with one of the fundamentals. Many online articles on the subject of telling children about divorce break down some of the do’s and don’ts – and whilst this may seem like a way of over simplifying things, these simple guides can prove invaluable in setting up a framework for what will be a very difficult conversation.
And that difficulty comes from both sides – it will be just as, if not more difficult for a child to hear that his or her parents are splitting up, than it will be for the parents to break the news. Naturally, age plays an important factor in terms of basic awareness. If the home environment has become so stressful that neither parent can bear it any more, then a teenager is much more likely to be aware that their parent’s relationship isn’t working any more. The news of divorce won’t be any less difficult to hear, but it may be much less of a shock.
At the core of the entire conversation is the truth. There’s no point in attempting to ‘dress up’ the situation for anything more than it is. This doesn’t mean presenting an unemotional and purely pragmatic solution – that would be impossible, but it’s important to bear in mind that children take their emotional cues from their parents.
The situation needs to be presented in a calm manner. Yes, you can, and indeed should share that you are feeling sad about the situation, but it is vital that you also present to your children that you are in control of your emotions. This divorce is not something that is happening beyond anyone’s control – it is a conscious choice, and a decision which has absolutely not been taken lightly.
Sharing your feelings is key here. Your children need to see that you are able to cope with the prospect of a divorce. After all, if you can’t, how can you expect them to?
After you have shared your feelings, stop talking and listen to your children. Some will react with practical questions such as where they are going to live and when they will see each parent. Younger children’s questions will be a lot more self-centred, such as which parent is going to look after them. Older children may simply get angry and reject the whole idea. This, essentially, is their going into denial, and you may become frustrated at first as you’ll feel that your children are not ‘on board’ with the idea of divorce.
That frustration is a mistake – this is not about how you are feeling or how you intend to process this divorce. When dealing with difficult, and indeed life changing situations, many children need nothing more than space. Both you and they will know that they need to speak with someone about how they’re feeling, but it’s unlikely that the person in question is going to be you.
Don’t take that to heart, and don’t think of it as a failing on your part as a parent that your child does not feel that they can talk to you. It’s not your fault, but you will have just turned their world upside down. Many of them will have pre-conceived notions about what is going to happen next. Some of them may have friends whose parents went through a divorce which proved to be very painful, hence they’re now terrified that they’re about to go through the same thing.
If your child can’t talk to you about your divorce, then help them to find someone that they can trust. This doesn’t need to be a professional – it can be a friend or a family member, but the key thing here is to suggest that they don’t attempt to go through this on their own. That’s an important word – suggest – not recommend. Your recommendations have dropped in value in the eyes of your children – they still love you, but they may not feel as connected to you as they did before all this talk of divorce. Again, don’t take it personally, it’s all part of the process.
With Truth, Comes Time
At the core of every parent is an unbreakable desire for our children to be OK. Whether talking about their physical health or emotional well-being, it’s our job as parents to make sure that the means to achieve both of those things are being met. As a result, it’s easy to feel that you’ve failed in this arena when telling your children, you’re getting divorced.
First – you have NOT failed as parents. In fact, if the home environment has become so toxic that you have decided to divorce, then you are actually taking steps for your children’s environment to become better. The trouble is that whilst you might be able to give yourself that reassurance, it would be foolish for your child to see it that way straight away.
Your children will need time to process what they’ve just learned. Remind yourself that they will eventually accept what’s happened, but that every child is unique. Younger children are more adaptable – in fact, before the age of seven, their emotional ‘barometer’ hasn’t really been set yet, so they will come to terms with their new normal quite quickly.
In the case of older children, they’ll have much more emotional processing to work through, but regardless of their age, give them time, and don’t set any sort of time limit in your own mind either. This could take months or even years, but if you start to become frustrated that you and your child are not ‘on the same page’, then this is only going to lead to additional conflict.
Different Ages, Different Approaches
Let’s start by looking at the youngest of children. If we take a look at 4-5-year olds, we can see that their world is entirely self-centred. Their understanding of personal relationships extends no further than who is going to provide for them and look after them.
This means that the subject of divorce is going to throw up both a fundamental question and a personal belief. The question is one we’ve already mentioned – who is going to look after me? The belief is that either Mummy or Daddy is leaving them, and that is something that they did which is at the centre of the divorce.
The key here is to provide constant nurturing, particularly from the parent with whom they will be spending the majority of their time. A child of this age has their world anchored in routine – meal times, bath times, play times, bed time, etc. This routine needs to be upheld because the rest of their ‘normal’ is about to go through a seismic shift. Too much change for a child of this age can be overwhelming, leaving the parent frustrated and not knowing how to truly help their child. Remember that at this stage, children might be starting to understand their feelings, but they won’t yet be able to vocalise them.
Once we get to the age of between 6 and 8, that understanding grows stronger, and so does the ability to talk about feelings. Moreover, the child’s social circle will have expanded beyond the home as they will now be in school and will have developed friendships. As a result, they’ll have more people with whom they can share, and therefore process their emotions. Keep asking them how they’re feeling, but don’t allow the divorce to become the focal point of the conversation. Remember that this is a critical age – it is the point at where children begin to truly define themselves. Your child has the choice to become many things, and you don’t want ‘a child of divorce’ to be their defining label. If they want to talk about the divorce, then let them, but encourage them to do so a little less as time goes on.
Between the ages of 9 and 11, children tend to see things much more in terms of black and white. Regrettably, this is also where the concept of blame will come into the equation. Children here will ask more questions in order to make sense of a situation that they don’t really understand. The divorce will be seen in their eyes as something that happened because of something that either Mummy or Daddy did. Worse still, is that they may view the divorce as a result of something that they did.
Children of this age can also entertain the fantasies of getting their parents to reconcile, and they’ll start to plan things that they can do in order to bring that result around. Here, it is vitally important that you help your child understand that the decision being made is based on much more adult conversations. They need reassurance and an explanation from you that the divorce is not based on one event or one fight or one thing that either parent did. The divorce is something that they cannot influence and, more importantly, that they must not feel that they have to try to do so. No child deserves to be under that sort of burden, so let them know that they are not responsible – either for the divorce or for trying to fix your marriage.
A softer approach is recommended here in order to encourage the children to deal with their emotions. Saying things like,
“Some children feel angry or sad when their parents get divorced,” may prove a lot less confronting than, “Are you feeling sad today?”
And finally, to teenagers, and this is tricky. Mainly because it’s more than just a cliché to suggest that teenagers get moody and angry. The trouble here is trying to identify if it’s the divorce which is causing their irritability, or simply their rapidly altering hormones.
Many teenagers will be seen to push you away – seemingly uncomfortable to talk about their feelings, and naturally, this is truer for boys than it is for girls. The important thing here is to not become frustrated and attempt to force the issue. As a parent of a teenager, you need to simply be there for them – just as if you would have been if you weren’t going through a divorce.
Their world is going through enough upheaval as it is. They’re starting to not only get a grip on how the world works, but they’re also starting to decide just what their place on it is supposed to look like. Divorce throws a major spanner in the works and they will need time to build a new lens through which they can view the world.
Sadly, some teenagers will turn to behavioural patterns which are destructive. Their anger could cause them to act out, and perhaps even find themselves in trouble with the law. They’ll act as though they don’t want your attention and that they don’t care how you feel, and that can be incredibly upsetting for a parent. This could well be the point where help from a professional counsellor might prove useful. Don’t think of needing this help as a failing on your part as a parent – it really isn’t. Both you and your child need to talk to someone before you can start truly speaking with each other. Your divorce lawyer will be more than happy to direct you toward to the help you need.
How do I tell my children about divorce?
Be honest and don’t sugar coat the situation. Avoid phrases like “everything is going to be OK”, because they may not be able to see things that way. Approach the conversation from their point of view and don’t try to score points or play favourites. Keep it simple, and regardless of their age, encourage them to talk about their emotions whenever they want to, and above all, be comfortable sharing with your children how you are feeling too.