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Talking to Your Kids About Divorce: Making the Best of a Difficult Process

So, you and your spouse have made the heart-wrenching decision to divorce. For whatever reasons, you’ve agreed to move forward in one of life’s most difficult decisions.

How best, then, to talk to your children about that decision and what the future holds for your family?

First, you should start by being honest. It’s important to know that kids of any age are likely to take on unseen burdens of a pending separation. They may blame themselves for some obscure reason and will certainly have doubts and stresses about what your decision means for them, their family and their future. Taking an honest approach, framed in language appropriate for their age and maturity, lays a foundation of trust and helps them realize that this is an issue between two parents who love them very much – not something they should feel responsible for.

How and When to Start the Discussion

The best approach for you and your spouse is to plan the discussions with your children ahead of time. While it may be difficult, it’s important to present a united front to your child or children, which requires you and your spouse to get on the same page about the message and delivery. Set your differences aside and try not to let the existing marital issues spill over as you explain your reasons. This only creates additional anxiety for children, regardless of their age. Most likely, they’re aware on some level of your issues or marital discord.

Importantly, have the conversation together. Both parents should contribute, and your expressed rationales should reflect your concern for the child and for their happiness. Avoid he-said, she-said pettiness or thinly veiled anger.

Consistency Is Key

When you and your spouse present a unified, consistent message over time, this creates a crucial sense of security for your children. They may initially be upset, but with your assurances and comfort, they’ll gain the confidence to accept this new normalcy. Together, try to balance the share of tough talks and try your best to have them together. If you’re able, share what your child communicates without editorializing. Remember, your spouse wants the best for the kids just like you do, so be fair in your reporting and analysis.

A Healthy, Ongoing Dialogue Will Change

Children will think of all kinds of unexpected questions for you. Listening is essential. Learn to hear beyond their obvious question. Kids can be obsequious in expressing their concerns. Anticipate their questions when you can and have some idea of how you’ll answer them. Discuss these issues with your co-parent – they’ll probably be asked the same things.

As your child ages and you and your ex move on from the divorce, your relationships with each other and the kids will naturally evolve. Keep the dialogue going. Learn from your conversations. Be sure to consider their age when bringing up topics like your own new relationships. Involve the kids to the extent you feel comfortable. Be aware that anger may resurface down the line and your child may show resentment towards one or both of you. Be ready to talk through it, honestly and maturely, with your kid and your ex.

Be Positive, Especially as it Relates to Your Child

It can be highly destructive to your child’s emotional development to include them in your divorce decision-making process. This includes the practical issues of separation that you will undoubtedly face. Be discreet in the tough conversations you have with your spouse. If possible, have them in neutral territory, away from the kids.

The same goes for speaking with your attorney about the particulars of the divorce. Legalese sounds serious and scary. Save it for the office or the car – or meet with your lawyer in person. Do not have these conversations within ear shot of your children.

If the divorce is contentious, staying positive with the child is especially important. When courts have to intervene or when a Guardian ad Litem is appointed, everyone’s stress levels rise. Be especially attuned to the impact on the kids.

Your children will have questions about, “What’s going to happen to me?” This can and will cover a wide range of topics, including money, friends, activities and their home. You can frame these questions in a positive way simply by reassuring them that, “While your parents are getting divorced, they’re going to make sure you are happy and get to see your friends. We’ll take care of you like always.”

Talking about living arrangements is especially challenging. With your spouse, decide ahead of time to not designate one household as the primary “home.” Give no indication that one place is better than the other. Depending on your kids’ age, you can even make it exciting by pointing out that they now have two places to call home!

Practical Considerations

There are a number of tools to help ease the process of communicating through divorce. Keep a shared calendar with your co-parent to avoid miscommunicating your child’s schedule. Kids easily pick up on the perceived burden they may be causing their parents. Take care of the logistical discussions ahead of time, out of the child’s hearing range.

Refrain from using social media to air your grievances or bare your soul. Kids, their friends and their friends’ families will be watching, and it can be destructive for any of your dirty laundry to get back to your child. Keep a record of the decisions you make with your co-parent. This is useful when one parent forgets or there’s a scheduling conflict.

Always Place the Needs of Your Child First

You and your spouse have perhaps tried therapy or counseling to resolve your issues or to come to a clear understanding of your decision to divorce. Your children deserve the same opportunity. Therapy creates a safe space for them, away from their individual ties to their parents. They’re able to ask questions without fear of reprisal or hurting one parent’s feelings. Resist the urge to ask your child what they spoke to the therapist about. When you get updates from the professional, be sure to do it with your co-parent. This avoids any miscommunication between you and the child or each other.

This is an incredibly difficult time for all family members, but especially for the kids. When you place the needs of you children first, you’re helping to reinforce the sense of stability they need, especially as they see their family changing.

Jordan Whitaker Kennelly is an associate at Boyd Collar Nolen Tuggle & Roddenbery. She helps clients navigate the difficult processes that come with divorce. Jordan handles an array of family law matters with a focus on child custody, paternity and legitimization, domestic violence and temporary protective orders

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About The Author

Jordan Whitaker Kennelly Associate

Jordan Whitaker Kennelly handles an array of family law matters with a focus on child custody, paternity and legitimation, domestic violence and temporary protective orders. She helps clients navigate the difficult processes that come with divorce, child custody and domestic violence by advocating for her clients’ best interests while striving for a peaceful resolution. Jordan Read More

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