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Discussing Divorce & Separation with your Children

A blog by Lindsey Boland, LCSW, Certified Synergetic Play Therapist Making the decision to get separated or divorced can be an extremely complicated, emotional and painful decision. On top of that, determining how to tell your kids can add even more anxiety and overwhelm for parents and caregivers.
Kids, even those who are young, know when things are happening in the home, so don’t delay this conversation. Of course, the way you broach this subject depends on the age and developmental level of your children.
Here are some tips you might consider if you are needing support with sharing the news of a separation or divorce with your child(ren):
  1. If possible, inform your children of this news together as co-parents. Sometimes this may not be a safe and/or healthy option, but in a best case scenario, speaking with your children together sets a good precedent that this is an adult decision that was agreed upon by both parties. Having splintered conversations could lead to miscommunication, assumptions and resentment. If necessary, you could consider utilizing a therapist or a mediator to help with this.
  2. Plan together what will be said ahead of time and who will say it. Partner with your co-parent for the sake of your children. Do not have this conversation as a spur of the moment thing on a holiday or special event. It might be something good to do on a weekend where there aren’t any plans. You don’t need to come up with a script, or share every little detail that led to the decision, but having a general idea about the most important points is helpful. Utilize “we” instead of “me” or “your dad” or “your mom.” Older adolescents may also want more detailed information, so plan ahead and agree on what you will share, especially if they ask difficult questions that could be uncomfortable to answer depending on the circumstances.
    • Example: “We have not been happy for a little while in our marriage and we both agreed that what would be best for the family is to separate so there aren’t as many  arguments and disagreements. We both are looking for different things in our lives. This was a completely adult decision and has nothing to do with you kids. We want to remind you that no matter what, our love for you never changes and we will both always be there for you. Dad will be moving into a new apartment in two months. You can go and visit if you would like so you can get to know it a little better. I know this might be overwhelming and confusing so we want to give you time to process or ask any questions….”
  3. It is the responsibility of both parents to manage their emotional responses during and after this conversation. Avoid the blame game and who is “right” and “wrong” as this only adds fuel to the fire. This might require meditation, therapy,  support from loved ones, self care, etc. I am not suggesting that you aren’t allowed to cry or get emotional (that would be an unreasonable expectation as as this can be a very difficult and sad event) but do your best with emotions because the focus needs to be on the kids. Saying things that are upsetting or scary will only make things harder and more stressful. In addition, placing children in the middle of arguments and forcing them to pick sides is detrimental to all of the family relationships. Again, the focus during this conversation is to help support your children with this information and should not be used as a time to express any unresolved feelings. Do your best to keep the adult issues separate from your interactions with your children.
  4. Utilize books and/or videos, especially for younger children to help process the concept of separation and divorce. Some great ones include “Why Do Families Change?: Our First Talk About Separation and Divorce,” “Two Homes,” “The List of Things That Will Not Change” and “The Invisible String” (which can be used during any loss of any kind). Sesame Street also has a Divorce toolkit.
  5. Let your children know what changes will happen so that they can know what to expect, as well as what won’t change (being a family, continuing to love the children unconditionally, both showing up to soccer games, etc). Of course, some unexpected things can change as time passes but giving your children as much information as possible, that is also age appropriate, is key to managing anxiety around the unknown.
  6. Take cues from your children and affirm any of their responses, verbal or nonverbal, even if they are painful or upsetting to hear. There is no one way to respond to this type of information. Some kids might have a lot of follow up questions in the weeks and months following while others might have even expected it or feel a sense of relief, especially if the parent relationship was highly conflictual. Expect some potential behavioral outbursts, too.
    • All children deserve a healthy and open conversation about this, even if they say they don’t want to talk about it (especially those teenagers). Don’t try to ask them every hour about how they are feeling but allow some time and space to process but keep open opportunities for curiosity and questions. Healing may take a long time or it may not. Every family and circumstance is different.
  7. Offer reassurance. Remind your kids that no matter what, you and your co-parent will always love them and you can get through tough times and challenges ahead. You might need to create different schedules, vacations and traditions and that’s ok because you are a part of a growing and changing family.
Moving forward, create co-parenting goals that are kid-centered. Your children are going to be observing your every move and comment made towards one another. Model healthy relationship qualities and avoid any badmouthing or blaming. We encourage you to seek professional help if you and/or your children struggle well past six months and if relationships appear to become increasingly tense and/or adversarial.  This could look like play therapy, but it could look like something else too, such as parent coaching, family mediation, or a family therapist. Reach out to us and let us know how we can support you and your family. View and share Lindsey's Instagram post here.