Announcing plans to divorce to your kids is one of the most difficult moments of the process. Obviously, it has to be done because, before long, one parent will leave the home (if not already), and other big changes will be just around the corner. The ages of the children and their understanding of what “divorce” is also makes bringing kids into the loop challenging, but for different reasons.
Younger children first have to have the concept explained before they can even begin to comprehend what it will mean in their lives while older children already know what it is and will have more complex fears and emotions about how it will affect them. Some parents take the straight up approach, explaining that mommy and daddy can’t live together anymore, while others try to soften the blow with promises of duplicate holidays – as though the divorce is actually to be celebrated. However the message is delivered, kids are bound to be full of questions.
These are some of the questions you can expect from your kid about your divorce:
1. Will you stop loving me too? It seems pretty logical for a child to draw the conclusion that if mom and dad once professed to love one another forever and were once so happy together, that your love for them must also have limits or conditions. How many of us have said to our kids “I’ll always love you, no matter what?” How frightening then, to watch mom and dad separate everything they own, not get along anymore, and make plans to forever sever their relationship!
Even if your child never vocalizes this fear, it is important for them to have your reassurance that a parent’s love is an even deeper and stronger love than they could ever imagine, and that there’s no way you would ever stop loving them. This is also an important time to explain how seriously you take the marriage commitment and that your decision was made, in part, to create the best environment for them away from conflict, and that you wouldn’t just stop loving their other parent for trivial reasons.
2. Why did this happen? Honesty is important, but it is also important to present things in an age-appropriate way. Your children, no matter what age, do not need to hear all the nasty details of dad’s infidelity or mom’s drinking problem (or whatever your issues were). Older children will most likely be aware of some of the issues or the fact that their parents were unhappy.
As they are able to comprehend, you can present factual information that doesn’t cross the line into TMI territory or engage in trashing the other. Some aspects of the divorce will never be anyone else’s business because they were between you and your spouse. Period. You will have to decide what is necessary for the kids to know to help them make sense of the situation without turning them against a parent or overwhelming them with private adult issues.
A core fear tucked at the heart of this question may be the fear that they are responsible for the divorce. No matter if this question I ever asked, they must hear from you that they are absolutely not responsible!
3. What will my life be like now? As it is their life too, it only makes sense that your kids will be concerned and curious about what the schedule will be like, where they will live, what their space will be like in each home, and so on. Offer comfort by reassuring them about every detail that you do know and be honest about what still needs to be decided or that you’re not privy to.
For instance, you may not personally have any idea what their room will be like at dad’s house, but you can at least reassure them that you’re sure daddy will do all that he can to make a decent place for them with everything they need.
You can provide the kids with a copy of the schedule on a calendar or in an app to allow them to know where they’re projected to be on any given date so that they can mentally plan out their lives or discuss these things with you.
Make them aware that you remember all of their special events at school, games, and so on and that you will make every effort to be there for them. In the beginning, all of you will be floundering to get your bearing and become accustomed to the schedule, so keep the doors of communication open and be willing to answer every question as best you can.
5. Why are you doing this to me? Of course, you and your ex didn’t divorce with the intent to make your kids unhappy or to complicate everyone’s lives more.
What kids will notice is that their parents are no longer under one roof, every holiday or special occasion may be interrupted mid-way for them to be shipped off to the other parent’s home, they may have to move or change schools, and just generally feel like their whole world has been turned upside down. It’s natural for kids to be angry, feel inconvenienced, and need to place blame on someone for seemingly ruining their lives. All you can really do is try to offer as much consistency and familiarity to their lives as possible, minimize the number of major changes occurring at once, address their questions as honestly and appropriately as you can, and explain that the divorce was done in an effort to actually make their life better!
If they miss friends from the old neighborhood, let them have a sleepover. If they want to say “goodnight” to dad before bed, let them give him a call. In short, find ways to make the massive blow of divorce as tolerable as possible. If your kids demonstrate behavior that shows you they are really struggling (e.g. anger, extreme sadness, self-harming behavior, big changes in appearance or friends, and so on), get them professional help to cope. Otherwise, any child can benefit from drawing or writing about how they feel, talking about their feelings, and finding comfort in routines and rituals.
Be prepared for your child to have plenty of questions and fears racing through their minds at this time. Kids won't always know the best ways to express what they're thinking and feeling, so their questions may manifest more through their actions, or they might take awhile to formulate what they need to say. try to be proactive about anticipating what they may be curious and worried about.