At Connatser Family Law, we always say, “Kids come first.” One of the biggest challenges parents face during a divorce is finding the best way to break the news to their children. So we asked psychotherapist Linda Solomon, LPC, LCDC, LMFT what advice she gives to parents regarding how to explain divorce to children.
Connatser Family Law regularly recommends Linda to clients who need emotional guidance and actionable insight during divorce and child custody disputes. She also serves as a collaborative neutral during collaborative divorces and as a parenting coordinator in Dallas and Collin Counties.
Along with working closely with a family counselor throughout the divorce process, Linda encourages parents to consider the following tips to help ease the blow of divorce when breaking the news to children.
Tip No. 1: Plan in advance and schedule time for “the divorce discussion.”
Telling children you are getting a divorce shouldn’t come out during a spur of the moment conversation. Linda strongly urges parents to plan the timing for the discussion.
As she explains, “Plan the time so no one in the family will need to walk out the door in 30 minutes to an hour after the discussion. Whether that is to attend soccer practice, get a haircut or go to a birthday party. This is an extremely important family discussion and parents must create time for it to take place.”
The time of year and day of the week are also important. “I strongly suggest parents schedule the divorce conversation on a weekend, unless it will occur during summer vacation. You don’t want children to have to get up and go to school the next morning. Most parents have the discussion early Friday evening or Saturday morning,” Linda says.
Tip No. 2: Present a united front.
Children need to hear the news from both mom and dad. As Linda explains, “This is a conversation that parents need to have together with the children, not mom or dad only. Despite difficulties between the two parents, this is the first chance for the children to continue seeing mom and dad as a parental team once they have learned about the divorce.
“In other words, by having the discussion together, no matter what, you’re modeling for the children that you’re still a team as their parents. That united front is critical.”
Tip No. 3: Plan what you will say ahead of time.
Along with breaking the news together, Linda also recommends parents sit down prior to the divorce discussion to get a gist of what they are going to say to the children and how they are going to say it.
“I don’t expect parents to script out the entire conversation, but wording can make a difference. One of the most important things parents should do is use the word divorce very early in the discussion.
“Parents repeatedly tell me they regret it when they don’t mention divorce early on, because it gets harder over time to use that word. Some children even expect the parents are just going to live separately for a while and everything is going to be OK,” Linda says.
Linda and Dallas divorce attorney Aubrey Connatser provide additional insight in this past post: 5 Valuable Resources to Help Kids Cope When Parents Split.
Tip No. 4: Plan what you will NOT say ahead of time.
It’s also really important for parents to reach an agreement regarding what the children will NOT be told.
According to Linda, “This is what I refer to as private marital information or adult information. The divorce conversation will be difficult and filled with emotion, and in the midst of emotion, people blurt out things they later regret.
“The goal is to avoid revealing inappropriate marital information or details the children do not need to know. So it’s critical for parents to think things through and come to an agreement that no matter the reasoning for this divorce, here’s what we will tell the kids and here’s what we will not.”
Your family counselor or therapist can provide insight regarding what to include on both lists.
Tip No. 5: Unplug and be crystal clear during “the discussion.”
Along with using the word divorce early on, Linda recommends bringing the family together and broaching the conversation similar to the following:
- We all need to sit down.
- Everyone needs to unplug – turn off the T.V., computers and tablets.
- We all need to put our phones on mute.
Once the family has gathered, the conversation should continue similar to the following:
- We need to have a family discussion and talk about a big change that is going to happen in our family.
- We want you to know dad and I (or mom and I) have decided to get a divorce.
Follow up with statements that most parents know to be true, but children really need to hear out loud, such as:
- This isn’t about you.
- We love you very much.
- Being your parents isn’t going to change, but our marriage is going to change.
If the children are young, they might not understand the word divorce. In those situations, Linda encourages the parents to spell out details more clearly, such as:
- We are not going to be married anymore.
- We are not going to be husband and wife.
- We are not going to be living together anymore, and that means you will have two homes at some point.
- You will spend time at both mom’s house and at dad’s house.
Tip No. 6: Preempt the blame game.
Linda cautions parents to be prepared, because some children begin to place blame or fault as soon as they learn about the divorce. Some kids come straight out and ask, “Is it my fault?” Or the child may blame mommy because she was mean to daddy or blame daddy because he works late.
Regardless of whether the child verbalizes thoughts on blame or not, Linda believes it’s crucial for parents to address blame during the divorce discussion. Parents need to explain to children:
- What happens in our marriage is just between the two of us (mom and dad).
- There is nothing you could ever do that will cause us to get a divorce or not get a divorce.
- This is between mom and dad. It’s an adult relationship.
- It’s about what’s changed between us, not about you.
Tip No. 7: Manage expectations.
When a big life change like divorce comes to light, adults and children can be flooded with emotions about the divorce and even go into shock depending on the individual’s personality. Linda always talks with parents about the different reactions they might see and how to react.
As she explains, “Some children, and adults for that matter, want to know the details right away. ‘Where am I going to live? Where will my dog or cat live? Can my friends come over? What will we do for Christmas this year? Who’s going to drive me to school?’
“During the initial family discussion, most parents won’t have all of the answers, but I always encourage parents to be open and say, ‘We don’t know the answer to that yet, but as soon as we do, we’ll let you know.’”
Linda also advises parents to remind children what WILL stay the same. As she explains, “Parents should give the child something to hang on to emotionally. They should also tell children what mom and dad know for sure.”
Depending on the child’s age, parents may explain to children, what we know for sure is:
- Tucker the dog is going to stay where mom lives, so you’ll always have Tucker.
- Susie the cat is staying with dad, so you’ll always have Susie.
- Your friends will stay the same.
- Your teacher and school will stay the same, and you will continue to play soccer and take piano lessons.
- None of those things are going to change.
- We’re going to remain a family. We’re just going to be a family that looks different, because we live in two homes.
- We will continue to be your parents. That will never change.
Reach out to a mental health professional for additional advice
Helping children navigate the divorce process takes time. Insight and counseling from a family therapist, counselor or clergy experienced in divorce and custody matters can help ensure a healthier outcome for both children and parents.
Since founding Connatser Family Law in 2013, Aubrey Connatser and her team have firmly established the next in a line of great Texas divorce and family law firms. To learn more about divorce and child custody in Dallas and Collin Counties, please call (214) 617-1583 to speak confidentially with a knowledgeable and compassionate member of the Connatser Family Law team.