Children need to talk about your divorce, and they need to hear about it from you. Even if they say they don’t want to do either, it’s your place to figure out a way to get your children to open up about their feelings.
Divorce is stressful, but even more so when children are involved. Trying to manage your new life, your feelings and those of your children can feel overwhelming. Your children need you to be the adult, but at the same time, they need you to see the divorce through their eyes. Keep that in mind when talking to your kids about your divorce.
Ideally, both parents should sit down with a child to tell them about the divorce. Emphasize that the decision was mutual and that the divorce is in no way their fault. Let them know they did nothing to cause the divorce and that there is nothing they can do to prevent it.
The list below is by no means comprehensive, but as a Family Law Attorney, these are the most common mistakes I see parents make when talking about divorce with children.
1. DON’T Keep Your Kids in the Dark
They’re your children and you want to protect them as much as possible. Children are resilient, but can’t handle being kept in the dark or lied to. You don’t need to go into extreme detail—which can vary depending on their age—but you should be able to tell them basic information. Keep your children informed of any changes that will have a direct effect on them, even if they act like they don’t care. Let children know how family roles are going to be different. Tell them who they will be spending time with and when. No matter how your children feel about your divorce, they'll want to know how their own day-to-day activities might change. Be truthful, but remember that children don’t need the details of things like the amount of child support or the name of the person your spouse cheated with.
2. DON’T Criticize or Blame Your Spouse for the Divorce
Even if your spouse gambled away your life savings or was unfaithful, the reasons for your divorce should be explained in neutral terms to your children. Blaming one spouse or criticizing them in front of your children will only cause problems for everyone in the future. You may have every reason to be angry or upset, but when you speak poorly of your spouse, remember that you are also talking about that child’s mother or father. The breaking up of a family is painful enough without involving children in their parent’s marital issues. Kids love both of their parents—even when they are angry with one (or both) of them.
3. DON’T use Your Children as Emotional Support
If your children are older—teens or adults—you may be tempted to lean on them for emotional support. The pain of divorce can last for a while, but don’t put it on your children in the thick of it. It’s fine for your children to know that you’re feeling angry or sad, but sharing too many intimate details puts your child in an awkward position. It only hurts your children to hear about the things that the other parent has done. If you are unable to cope or just need to speak with someone, talk to a good friend, relative or a professional counselor. If you're able to adjust to this major life change, your children will be more likely to do so as well. And remember, make sure that you don’t discuss the divorce with other people in front of your children.
4. DON’T Make Your Children Choose Sides
Your child’s loyalty is already torn, so don’t make it worse. They should be allowed to express love for the both you and your ex without feeling guilty. Your child should not feel responsible for your emotional state. Don’t make them think that they’re hurting you when they spend time with your ex. Trying to manipulate your children’s emotions won’t solve anything, and only makes the situation worse.