Choosing to divorce is a big decision, and it’s one that is full of complex, sometimes conflicting emotions and concerns about what comes next.
One of the most universal concerns for parents who are divorcing is how they’re going to break the news to their children and how their children will process the information.
Even when a divorce is amicable, it’s a major change for children. Depending on their ages, personalities, and the specifics of your family’s situation, your children might be angry, sad, worried, scared, relieved, or even act as if they’re indifferent.
Don’t worry, all of these are normal responses! It’s also normal as a parent to want to make the divorce process as stress-free for your children as possible. The right strategy can help you explain your divorce to your children without overburdening them, confusing them, or encouraging them to pick sides.
The Initial Conversation
It’s normal to worry about how your first conversation with your children will go. Be patient with yourself as you work through your own emotions—this isn’t an easy time, and you’re also dealing with a major life change.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, doing some preparation before the conversation can make it easier.
Wait Until You’re Certain
Before you speak with your children about your divorce, you’ll want to be confident that you’ve reached your decision to move forward with divorce.
Learning that their parents plan to divorce can bring up a lot of different—and sometimes conflicting—emotions for many children. There’s no benefit to sharing this news until you’re sure that you and your partner are moving forward with a divorce.
One big worry for children is whether they’ll have to move. It can help to wait until your plans for new living arrangements are finalized, and you have a plan in place for how they’ll divide their time between homes. However, this may not always be possible. So, having some kind of a plan, even if that plan is “Nothing will change for now, and we will tell you before it does, if it does,” is a good way to approach it with kids.
Weekends or other school breaks may be a better time to have these conversations. This will give your children some extra time to process before they have to return to school and other activities. However, if you have a child or children who thrive better with distraction, it may be best to tell them when they have the stability of a routine to rely upon as they process.
Coordinate Your Explanation
Although it might be hard to work together with your partner right now, if it’s possible, you and your spouse have this first conversation together with your children. Hearing the news from both parents at once can reassure your children that both parents will still be part of their lives.
Planning this discussion beforehand can also prevent confusion or blame-shifting. While you and your spouse may feel angry or disappointed with each other, remember that your children deserve to have good relationships with both of you.
How you and your spouse handle this conversation matters. When you present as united a front as possible and frame your decision to divorce as a mutual, adult decision, it helps your children understand that they don’t need to pick a side or blame one parent.
In situations where coordinating an explanation isn’t possible—your spouse lives in another state or time zone, there is an active domestic violence matter, or you and your spouse aren’t able to constructively speak with one another), talking to your divorce attorney can help. An experienced divorce attorney can help you navigate these difficult conversations in a way that minimizes your stress and is protective of your children’s best interests.
Explain the Immediate Effects For Your Children
Some children, especially younger children, may be most immediately concerned with how the divorce will affect their daily lives and relationships with each of you. Try to explain these changes as directly and simply as possible.
For example, you can explain that you will be living in a different house but that your co-parent will be staying here, that they’ll spend some time in each home, and what those living arrangements might look like. If nothing has been finalized, don’t be specific about the schedule itself, but concentrate on things your children can look forward to, like decorating a second room or making new friends in a second neighborhood.
During this conversation, the most important thing you can do is make sure your children know that both parents still love them and that the divorce isn’t their fault.
It’s worth emphasizing that this was a decision between you and your spouse and that there’s nothing the child did or could have done to change or affect that decision.
Emphasize the things that will stay the same in their lives. For example, you can stress that your school-aged children will still go to the same school or that they’ll still be able to spend time with their friends and participate in the same activities.
Most importantly, let your children know—as much as you possibly can—that both parents still love them unconditionally and will always be there for them.
After You’ve Broken the News
Once you’ve shared the news of your divorce with your children, you’ll need to be prepared to answer their questions and provide them with extra comfort and reassurance. Although this may take different forms depending on your children’s ages and personalities, there are still ways you can prepare to handle follow-up conversations.
Plan for Professional Support
Consider connecting with professional support for your family. Child therapists, pediatricians, or school counselors can offer specific guidance for you and your child as you both navigate this transition, including:
- Positive coping skills for difficult emotions
- Constructive techniques for better communication
- Supportive, empathetic listening—after all, your child can never have enough cheerleaders
- Identifying behaviors that may need further professional support
You don’t need to wait until you’ve told your child about your divorce to find support—doing this beforehand can be a productive, proactive step towards healing for your family.
Expect a Range of Reactions
Every child is different, and so are their reactions to difficult news like divorce. Some children might be angry, sad, or confused. Others may try to bargain with you, but other children might not even react at all.
These reactions are entirely normal, but no matter how they respond, try to stay calm, reassuring, and understanding.
Be Prepared to Answer Questions
Questions are normal after breaking the news about your divorce. Honesty and communication are essential, but you should also avoid oversharing. Giving your children specifics as to why you and your co-parent are getting divorced may be detrimental to protecting their relationships for you. It can often make children feel responsible for “fixing” the problems so their parents reunite.
Questions (and answers) will depend on your child’s age
Generally speaking, very young children tend to be mainly concerned with how the divorce will affect their daily lives and may have trouble understanding what it is or means for them.
You can help them feel safe by offering direct, simple explanations of how the divorce will impact their life and assuring them that none of these changes will alter their relationship with you.
Slightly older children might ask more in-depth questions. They may want to understand precisely why you’re getting divorced or look to place blame. They may also be dealing with confusion or negative emotions about the sudden change, even if they can’t put these feelings into words easily.
Children around this age may also benefit from additional resources. For example, there are many helpful children’s books about divorce that can help them understand their emotions about what’s happening in their lives.
Older children who have reached their teen years tend to have increasingly complex or difficult questions. They may become emotionally distant or unresponsive as they process their emotions about the divorce.
If you have teenage children, you may need to carefully weigh how much information you need to share to help them process and heal. Teens are usually mature enough to want to understand why you and your spouse have chosen to get a divorce. Still, you’ll need to balance their desire for understanding with your comfort level and your wish to preserve their relationship with both parents.
You may also need to check in with your older children. Even if they act like they don’t want to talk or don’t need reassurance, many teens will still appreciate your efforts to communicate.
Work With an Experienced NJ Divorce Attorney
By taking a transparent and communicative approach, you can ease the emotional burden on your children and help them set expectations for how their lives will change following your divorce.
At Jacobs Berger, LLC, we take pride in de-stressing the divorce process for our clients. We prioritize open and accessible communication and stay focused on your individual needs, desires, and concerns. Our end goal is to help you develop a clear plan for your divorce so you can work toward achieving a better future for your family.
If you need legal representation or have questions about child custody, child support, complex family structures, and more, the experienced attorneys at Jacob’s Berger can help. Reach out today to get started with a strategic planning session.