When to tell them…
- Sooner rather than later
Kids are perceptive and may jump to conclusions if they sense something is going on. Take the initiative to make them feel prioritized and valued in the family. This leaves time for transition as well. If one of you is planning to move out soon, give your kids several weeks to ease into the change. Avoid telling them then packing up to leave the same day.
- When you are absolutely sure you are proceeding with divorce
A good rule of thumb is to have the conversation two to three months before one of you files for divorce or moves out. Try to avoid hinting prematurely until you’re both on the same page about when and how the procedure is likely to play out.
- On a regular day, with plenty of allotted time
Don’t break the news on holidays, birthdays, in public, right around bedtime, before you’re about to leave for school or during an emotional moment. Make sure you’ve set aside plenty of time to answer their questions and address concerns.
- At the same time
Avoid telling each of your children individually. The one(s) last to know may end up hearing about it from a sibling rather than you and your spouse. If you have kids that vary widely in age, you can share in greater detail with the older ones later after giving the basic information to all your kids at once.
How to tell them…
- Both be present
Share the news as a joint decision and don’t assign blame. It may be helpful to have some idea of what the parenting plan will be. Try to use “we” as much as possible so that your children understand you are united in your decision. Emphasize that the kids will not be put in the middle of sorting out the relationship and stick up for your spouse if your child(ren) tries to place blame on one of you. Save your grievances for private conversations with each other and/or your attorneys.
- With advanced planning
Plan out together in advance how, when and what you’re going to say. If you don’t think you’ll be able to work together to prepare, consider sharing with a trusted, neutral friend, a divorce coach, family counselor or spiritual leader what you’d like to get across and invite him or her to the conversation. Especially if you are concerned about safety or dangerous conflict, seek professional help.
- Without emotional, incriminating or intimate details
Even if it is tempting to assign blame or reveal to your children that your spouse has made the decision to leave or has had an affair, refrain from including these specifics in the conversation. At this time, it is more important for your kids to know you are supporting and prioritizing them than telling the full, unabridged narrative of your marriage. Even if your older kids press for details, avoid being overly descriptive. Though they may be emotionally mature, they still won’t understand exactly what has gone on in your marriage and may misinterpret what you say.
- By including an outline of adjustments and changes
It is helpful to have some idea of your parenting plan first because you can provide information about where they’ll be living and with whom. But do be honest about what you don’t know and refrain from making promises you’re not sure you can uphold. Offer reassurance that things they value and enjoy (i.e. school, sports, extracurriculars, friendships) can stay the same. If one of you is leaving, tell them where you are going as soon as possible.
Your emotional state during the conversation can be extremely helpful in lessening their anxiety about the news. Be completely accepting of however they respond at the time (unless it’s with alarming language or behavior, of course). While you should try not to burden them with intense emotion of your own, it can be helpful to show them gently and honestly how you’re feeling so that they are reassured if feeling similar emotions.
- Using examples and tools
If your kids are friends with other kids whose parents have gotten divorced, ask them about it and try to use what you know of their friends’ situations to explain how your family’s will compare. For children with developmental differences, consider using visuals like diagrams, photos or movie clips to help explain what will be happening. Be prepared for questions from your children asking if it’s their fault, whether you still love them, how often they’ll get to be with you, when you’ll all be together again, if they’ll be moving or switching schools and what this means for financial stability.