How to tell the kids you're getting a divorce

If you’ve decided to get a divorce from your partner, it’s really important to take time to consider the impact this may have on your children, whatever their age. Whether they’re very young or they’re adults, it will affect them in a range of ways.  

How to tell your children you're getting divorced

Distracted, unhappy people are usually distracted, unhappy parents. It can be difficult to help our kids manage their feelings when our own world is in turmoil. You can let them know how you are feeling, but you will need to gauge how much to share with them depending on their age and the circumstances of your divorce.  It may be that getting a divorce is for you a relief after a difficult marriage or a complex time of separation but for them, it may be the news they were dreading or something that is unknown and scary. 

If, however, you are feeling distraught and upset at what's happening, it's probably fine for them to see you sad and crying but they will feel reassured if they know that you are still in control and coping with the situation. If they see you coping, they are much more likely to cope themselves which isn’t too surprising as children usually take their cue from their parents. 

Tips for telling children about divorce

  • Try to listen to them without taking sides or wanting to put your point of view. They may see things differently and may want to express their anger or sadness by directing it at you! 
  • Remember that all young people get angry, sad, miserable and cross at times, so don’t assume it is always because of the break up. 
  • Allow them time to accept the change and remember that they have little or no control over the situation and will want to know what happens next. 
  • Bear in mind that for them, the most important things to know may be whether or not they will have change school, move house or leave their friends.   
  • Encourage them to be open and honest about how they feel and if this is too difficult a conversation for you – then encourage them to talk to someone you and they trust. 
  • Consider that the fact you're getting divorced from their father/mother may be a huge shock to them even though you've been thinking about it/been aware this could happen for some time.   
  • Remember that, very often, whatever you're feeling, they very much love and want to spend time with you and their father.  They may feel very torn and disloyal at not living with you both.   

What to say to children about divorce

The straightforward answer is the truth, shared in a way that is appropriate to their age. 

  • Don’t pretend "it’ll be alright" - it may not be in their eyes. 
  • Don’t make promises that you’ll find difficult to keep. Telling them that “nothing will be different” or “you can see mum/dad whenever you want to” may be the easiest thing to say at the time but may be unrealistic. What you say and how you say it will be largely dependent on how old/how mature they are, though it probably isn’t ever appropriate to share the full details of your relationship breakdown.  If it is possible, it can be reassuring for children, especially if they're quite young, for both you and their other parents to tell them together what's happening and how it will affect them.   
  • If you don't know where you'll be living, don't be afraid to say "I don't know, at the moment" or "for a while, until we sort things out, this will be the situation but of course I'll tell you just as soon as I know".
  • However angry or upset you feel, don’t blame your partner or try to score points against them. This won’t help your children come to terms with their feelings; neither will it do your relationship with them any good in the long run. 
  • Keep it simple; let them know – and keep telling them – that it wasn’t their fault and that they are still loved by both parents. 
  • Let them know you are still there for them as a parent. They may show you they still need you by regressing slightly, being more clingy, needing more reassurance than usual. Be patient, they too need time to adjust just as you do. 
  • Let them ask questions, some may be obvious, some may feel bizarre or irrelevant to you – try to be honest. They may make assumptions based on what has happened to other families they know or even what they have seen on television. 
  • Listen and give them the opportunity to share their fears, however small or silly they may seem to you. A small reassurance may make all the difference. Always take their worries seriously. 

How children react to divorce

If there’s been a lot of conflict between you and your partner, your children may be relieved that things are going to improve. But they could still feel angry and hurt. They might have worries about how this will change their lives and their relationship with you and your partner.  Family occasions such as birthdays, Christmas and other celebrations will need to be considered and planned so that your children know what's going to happen and they're not left to worry about it.  Parents' evenings can be another 'flashpoint' for children.  If you're able to attend this together, so much the better.  If not, let your children know who will be coming, or if you'll both be attending at different times.   

It’s quite common for some children to ‘lock down’ and refuse to talk about how they’re feeling or they may decide not to talk to one of you at all. They may start with one reaction and then move on to a different one. It’s hard to tell exactly how each of your children will react until it happens so you'll need to be patient with them as they come to terms with the changes.  

If it's possible, the more you and your ex can discuss family matters together, and are seen to communicate in a civil and courteous way with each other, the easier it will be for your children to make the adjustment. 

How family and friends can support your children through divorce

Hopefully, your family and friends will be supportive and helpful.  A trusted friend with whom you can share your strongest feelings is invaluable. They may be able to talk things through with your children, offer a different perspective, and show them that some things will stay the same whilst other things change. Grandparents can give stability and reassurance when your children’s world feels fragile. But your own relationship with your in-laws could be problematic for a while, or may dwindle, depending on the circumstances of your divorce and the relationship you had with them earlier in your marriage.   

Be aware that some family members may feel hurt, anger and other strong emotions of their own. Some may be judgmental, take sides and want someone or something to blame. That could include you! 

Remember that your relationship is your business so you don’t always need to justify your position, or what has happened unless of course you want to. 

Some people may come to terms with your relationship breakdown more quickly than others but family and friends can be a source of support at a difficult time so accept their help as a gift and try to be patient with those that take a little longer. 

How school or college can help your children cope with divorce

Let your child's school or college teachers know what's happening at home; you're warning them that your children may be upset, confused and may need a little more patience and understanding than usual. They can alert you to signs that your kids are behaving unusually or appearing not to cope. They too can be a source of support for you and your children, someone they can talk to. 

There may be a counsellor in school who can help if your child wants to speak to someone. 

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