When it was time for me to tell my then-eight-year-old daughter that I was getting a divorce and her father would no longer be living with us, I was terrified.
I read articles, I called therapists, and I put it off telling her about my divorce because I was scared to hurt her.
My twins were only two and had no idea what was going on at the time, but my daughter would understand. She knew and feared divorce just like most kids her age. I was terrified that I would do it wrong and that I would scar her forever.
In my private practice, clients often come to me with this same terror and I can offer genuine comfort because I get it and I know that this conversation is an opportunity for growth and healing.
Telling your kids about your divorce does not have to be traumatic and rarely is traumatic when parents are respectful and tolerate their child’s feelings around it.
Telling kids about divorce is scary because you’re a good parent and you care. That alone means that you’re going to be fine.
Here are 5 tips to make telling your kids about your divorce go as smoothly as possible:
1. Reassure them that your divorce is not their fault.
Kids are normally developmentally ego-centric which means that they make up that everything good and everything bad is about them. They need constant reassurance that it is not their fault, even if you think they already know.
2. Let them know how this impacts them, and make big changes gradually if possible.
Your kids need to understand how your divorce will impact them in the immediate future.
Letting them know that they will still get to see and spend time with both parents is important (assuming that’s true and hopefully it is). Keeping their lives as consistent as possible for at least the near future is ideal so that they don’t feel like the rug got pulled out from under them.
Big changes should come gradually if possible. Let them know how this impacts their daily routine even if the impact is minimal as they may imagine something far more drastic than you have planned.
3. Put aside your differences and present a united front.
This conversation is best had with both parents present. If you hate your ex and they did horrible things to you, for the sake of this conversation, you need to put all of that away and show up for your kids together.
If both parents are not willing to do this, it’s important that the parent presenting the divorce does not badmouth or blame the other parent — it will only hurt your kids. Remember, your kids are half the other parent — when you trash their other parent, you trash a part of them.
4. Stay calm and collected as much as possible.
Your tone informs your children’s level of fear about the divorce.
If you are yelling, sobbing, or shaking, you are going to scare the hell out of your kids by communicating with nonverbal cues that they should be frightened.
While telling your kids you’re getting a divorce is a hard conversation to have, you don’t want to convey to them that something horrific and scary is in the works so try not to act like this is horrific and scary.
Your kids really need to feel like you have a handle on this and that they will be okay. It’s up to you to show them that.
Save the conversations about your deep fears for your friends and therapist. Your kids are not the people to work this out with.
5. Be honest, but have boundaries.
Don’t tell them dad is out of town on business for months at a time — they will know something is not right and likely make up that it has to do with them. Still, they do not need to know the gory details of your divorce.
Do not enmesh your kids by confiding in them about how your partner hurt you. It’s not your child’s job to hold that.
They may have questions— be aware of where they are developmentally when answering those questions.
A young child needs and understands very little information pertinent to divorce.
An older child or teenager may understand more and while if there is another man or woman in the picture, it’s important to be honest about that if that person will be in your kid’s life, it’s still important to have boundaries with your children.
Divorce is heavy — your kids don’t need to hold that. What do they really need to know?
It may not match up with what you are itching to tell them and it’s your job to make your kids your top priority during this conversation.
This is how I broke the news about my divorce.
My then-husband and I sat down with our daughter and explained calmly that he was going to be moving out of the house and that we were getting a divorce.
At first my daughter screamed loudly and then when she calmed down, we explained how it would impact her.
We told her that we both still loved her and that dad had been sleeping on the sofa for several months now and would be sleeping somewhere about 5 minutes from our house instead.
Many months later we did have to move and there were bigger changes but we didn’t scare her with those details then. We didn’t know what it would look like then and she didn’t need to worry about it.
We told her that none of this was her fault or her siblings’ fault (they were only two and did not require a conversation).
We assured her that her daily life would stay the same and that she would get to spend time with us both just as she always had. We kept our cool.
It’s been many years now since we told our daughter about our divorce and my daughter says that our divorce was not that big of a deal for her.
I imagine she still misses having her family all under one roof but it didn’t screw her up.
Her siblings who are now seven sometimes ask why we can’t all live together and my heart breaks for them. But they are all okay and they feel safe and that’s what matters.
This conversation is scary and hard. I get it, I really do.
Telling your kids about your divorce in a kind, calm, respectful way helps them to feel safe even amidst big life changes and that is a gift that they will have even after the conversation ends.
You are showing them that even during stressful changes, they will be safe.
You are teaching them that you can tolerate their big feelings (if they have them… and they may not seem to in the moment.)
You are helping them understand that difficult transitions are not the end of the world and that you (and they) will be okay.
And you will be okay.
This conversation is often harder on the parents than it is for kids. So be gentle with yourself.
If you want my help telling your kids about your divorce, I built Mastering “The Talk” as a foolproof system to help you connect to your kids and avoid the pitfalls that create unnecessary pain for the kids, and you.
Mastering “The Talk” includes everything you, your ex, and your kids needs to navigate this difficult conversation as painlessly as possible.