Telling the children about their divorce is something most parents dread. It’s understandable – divorce means a huge change to their lives. But they may well surprise you: both in what they already know and how they’ll react. In this blog I share 4 things to prepare for when you tell your children about divorce.
Their emotional reaction
For some children the news will come as a bolt from the blue. For many, though, particularly older ones, it may not be much of a surprise. Children are savvy – they see and hear more than we expect. They will have picked up on the atmosphere at home, even if you’ve tried to keep from arguing in front of them. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll welcome the decision. But it might not be quite the bombshell you thought it was.
So what can you expect from your children’s reactions? Well, pretty much anything could happen! Here are some common responses:
- Disbelief and denial: your child may initially refuse to acknowledge it’s happening. They want things to stay the same, so they hope that denial will make that so. Your job is to gently and consistently reiterate that the divorce is going ahead, and that some things will change, but they are still very much loved and it will all be okay.
- Anger: they may rage at the impact this is having on them. They didn’t choose it for themselves – and all of us hate to have unwanted change thrust upon us. That rage needs somewhere to go, and as their safe person, it’s likely to end up directed at you. You need to walk a line of being compassionate for and hearing their angry feelings, but not tolerating any behaviour that’s out of order.
- Sadness: younger children particularly may be openly heartbroken. Their world feels like it’s fallen apart and they don’t know what to do with themselves. Again, this is a time to reassure them, to show them they are loved, and that much of their life will continue as normal.
- Relief: if your marriage has been particularly volatile or unpleasant, your children may be relieved that things are changing. Don’t feel guilty if this is their response – see it as validation that you’re doing the right thing.
- Indifference: watch out for this one. Very few people are genuinely unaffected by divorce. Don’t push too hard for them to open up, but keep a quiet eye, and let them know you’re there for them.
- Independence: some children may see this as a sign they now need to take care of themselves. Again, keep a watchful eye. They need to know you are still there for them, but may also benefit from a sense of autonomy.
It’s highly likely they’ll ask all sorts of questions. For some children, the questions will come immediately as they try to make sense of everything. For others, they will need time to absorb the news and will formulate their questions later.
They are entitled to their questions. Their lives are being shaken up (eventually for the better, but they won’t necessarily see it like that). So deal with them as kindly, and honestly as you can. This doesn’t mean providing them with detailed answers: you are entitled to your privacy too. But it does mean giving them age appropriate explanations, and being clear if it’s an issue they don’t need to know or worry about.
Try to anticipate what they might ask, and prepare uncomplicated answers. Think about where they will live, and when, and how much input they will have into those decisions. How much time will they spend with each parent? Think about how it will impact their lives in practical ways (children are egocentric and practical!): will they still be able to do all of their after school activities, for example? Are there new things they might be able to get involved in?
If you don’t have answers straight away, don’t be put on the spot and make something up that you’ll have to u-turn on. Simply say ‘We’re not sure about that yet, but as soon as we have an answer we will let you know.’
They won’t always like your responses, but when it comes to the reality of their lives, a gently conveyed hard truth is much better than a well-intentioned lie. It can be so tempting to say something like ‘We might get back together someday’ to soothe your upset children. But in the longer-run, that leaves them in limbo and uncertainty.
Far better to say ‘We won’t be getting back together, but we will work things out, and you will always be safe and loved’, even if it’s not really what they want to hear.
At some point many children experience feelings of guilt over their parents’ separation. Was it something they did? If they’d been quieter or better behaved, would you have stayed together? Is their very existence what split you up?
Whatever the reality (and, for some couples, children do put a strain on marriage, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s the children’s fault), your job is to convey unconditional love to your children. The end of your marriage is the responsibility of you and your soon-to-be-ex, not your children.
Some children may articulate their feelings, while many will not. So be clear and vocal in your reassurance that you love your children, that none of this is their fault, and that, whatever happens, they will be looked after, loved and cared for.
Their other parent
Ideally you will agree how to tell the children about divorce together. You’ll each be consistent in what you say, and take care not to bad mouth each other in front of the children. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. If your ex-spouse is high conflict, or emotionally immature, they may not contain their emotions around the children. They may weaponise their time with the children, blaming and insulting you or them.
Obviously, this is unhelpful. It is also triggering for you, and the temptation can be to ‘fight back’. Don’t. Don’t be tempted to list the other parents’ faults and misdemeanours and go into blow-by-blow accounts of rights and wrongs. It’s so destabilising for your children. They need you to be a safe, steady space and they will value you for providing it (even if in the short term it feels like they are being taken in by their other parent).
I always advise people to keep communication brief if their soon-to-be-ex is high-conflict. This is so they can’t twist and use details against you. Keep to the facts, don’t get into emotions. And be aware that anything your children see and hear may well be relayed to their other parent too – it’s natural for children to be nosy and chat about what you’ve been up to.
Get Divorce Ready
I am running my foundational course ‘Get Divorce Ready’ live with members of The Absolute Academy from 27 September 2022. Get Divorce Ready covers everything you need to know about the divorce process and you: from getting your own emotional house in order, to what forms to submit and when.
It’s for you if divorce is a nagging idea that won’t go away: you’ll get clarity about whether it’s the right decision for you and how to do it.
It’s for you if you’re certain about divorce, but not sure how to go about it the right way to set yourself up for the smoothest possible ride.
It’s for you if you’ve already embarked upon divorce and stalled: it will help you untangle some of those knots.
And so you can find out more I am running a free Masterclass on How To Divorce Like a CEO: Into the Boardroom
tomorrow night at 8pm UK on ‘How To Divorce Like a CEO: Into the Boardroom’ which you can join here.
Get Divorce Ready will run live in The Absolute Academy from 27 September. That means for eight weeks you’ll have my support as we walk through the whole process. I really want you to make the most of this if it’s the right time for you, so I’m opening up my diary for calls this week and next.
Book in your free consultation and ask me anything!
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com