How to Talk to Kids About Divorce

I hope you never have to have this conversation but telling your kids you’re getting a divorce is one of the hardest things you will ever do. The breakdown of a marriage is stressful for everyone involved. Splitting up a household involves many decisions both large and small that have to be decided quickly. These decisions have a huge impact on children’s lives so need to be made with care. These decisions also need to be communicated to children with care.

Last week, I spent two hours working with divorcing parents to create a script to explain to their children that Mommy and Daddy were getting a divorce and how that would impact the children’s lives.

Divorce is a time of crisis and in a time of crisis it is best to keep the explanation simple. Together we created a list of what the parents needed to say to the children and the language they would (and wouldn’t use) to explain what was happening. This example was created for elementary school age children. For older, or younger children, the script would be adapted to the specific developmental age.

Their written dialogue included the following elements:

You may have noticed Mommy and Daddy have been sleeping separately. We want to let you know that has been working better for us.

We want to let you know we have been working on our marriage and we have decided it would be better to live separately and for you guys to live here with Mommy. You will see Daddy at our place and at his place.

A lot of things will be the same and some things will be different.

This is not your fault. We love you. We will always be a family. We will always be your Mommy and Daddy and we will always love you. We decided it would be better to live separately and we will be good friends and better parents that way.

You will live here with Mommy and you will see Daddy a lot, sometimes here and sometimes at his place. Sometimes all four of us and sometimes just with Mommy or just with Daddy. And also each of you will be able to have alone time with Mommy and alone time with Daddy.

There are different kinds of love. Mommy and Daddy still care a lot about each other and have love for each other but not married love.

Mommy and Daddy love each other differently than we used to but mommies and daddies always love their children the same way, forever. Nothing can change that.

We believe this is going to be better for everyone, including you, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. Do you have any questions?

You might be surprised that it took two hours to make this list of things to say but it involved working through the logistics of what the children’s day-to-day life would look like after the separation. Since most children blame themselves for the divorce in some way, the parents worked out the best way to explain that this was not their fault and that both of their parents still loved them.

The parents also had to agree on how much detail to share with their children and what to AVOID saying to the children. For instance, avoid overburdening the children with too much information; provide just enough to satisfy their curiosity and their need. Do not provide adult details. Do not bad-mouth the other parent. Children will do better if they are not expected to judge the situation or judge either parent. Keep negative thoughts about your ex to yourself.

The issues parents need to sort through are complex and potentially volatile. A divorce mediator not only helps you hash out the terms of your divorce, but can also help you come to agreement on practical issues like explaining the divorce to your kids. When parents use mediation to sort out issues, they reduce the risk of fracturing their relationship to the point where they cannot communicate at all and increase the chance of being able to co-parent peacefully.

Children benefit when they see their parents working together, even in a difficult situation. Stay calm, maintain routines, be honest. The message here is, “Daddy and Mommy have discussed everything and this is what we have decided to do…”. This shows children that even though things are changing, Mommy and Daddy are in control of what’s happening and will take care of them. This is very different from each parent hiring an attorney and having the attorneys and/or the courts hash out what the children’s post-divorce will look like.

If you or someone you know is contemplating divorce and need help figuring out what to tell the kids, please call me at 845-876-6100 to make an appointment to learn more about how divorce mediation can help you.

~ Eileen M. Rowley