The Brutally Honest Truth About Kids and Divorce: What and How to Tell Them You Are Getting Divorced

After 15 years of marriage, my college sweetheart and I separated and divorced shortly thereafter. Betrayal was deeply set, my heart felt beaten and pain throbbed. We had two young boys – 10 and 7.  Separation would mean agreeing to forfeit half of my presence and not getting to kiss my boys every night before bed. It would mean that, 100% of the time, our kids would be missing one of their parents. It would mean breaking up the “family” unit, severing the nest and what they had come to understand as home.  

I write this blog to share with you how I (rather we) handled the delicate conversation with our boys and to offer some wisdom for those going through it. And because I lived this reality, I want nothing more than to help other families’ experiences to ensure your children are in the center of the conversation vs. in the middle. So here goes!

First of all, my husband at the time and I discussed in advance how to tell the boys of our separation.  We sucked at communicating in our marriage, however we did happen to always want what was best for our kids. This required something big of both of us.  To consciously put our own pain and anger second, and our kids’ well being first. I kept repeating to myself: you only have one chance and this conversation is critical for the boy’s emotional peace.  This is about them, not us. Focus on the boys and what will support them in this moment and keep them feeling loved and safe. 

For us, this meant telling the boys that they had absolutely nothing to do with our decision.  It was between their dad and I and there is nothing they did wrong or could have done to change our decision.  We reinforced how much we love them and would always be a family.  Families look different today and it is okay that we do too. No matter what, we would always be there for them and they are important to both of us.

Now comes the where and how to tell your kids.  The where should be in a location with no distractions and preferable where they have their rooms to retreat to should they become upset. I can sum up how we told them with two words – brief and factual.  My husband at the time came over and I made sure the boys were playing in their rooms so we could review our plan one final time.  I calmly asked them to come downstairs because their dad came over and they came to sit with us on the couch.  I started the conversation as I wrote above and let the boys know that we would be living in two homes that they would now be going back and forth to.  They would be able to decorate a whole new room at their dad’s and he picked a place close to me so we can still try to see one another every day.  We then asked if they had any questions and they did not.  They sat in silence digesting the information and our oldest had tears in his eyes.  I asked if they wanted to go back upstairs and they said yes, so they left.

There will be kids who ask why?  This is where remembering their age and creating safety and security is important.  Do not over share.  Instead, inform them that adults have problems and while mommy and daddy worked really hard to solve them, it was not working anymore.  Let them know you tried really hard and this is what is best for everyone.  Empathize with their emotions and let them know you know this is hard and change is hard.  And they can feel whatever they like about it and you are both there for them.  I shared that this made me sad and I wept in front of them.  I believe it is important for our children to see we are human too. It is not necessary to share gossip details of the story. Instead, I offer a vague response, such as, “Sometimes things don’t work out the way I want, and I am sad about this right now.” Or, “Dad and I did everything we could and we both believe this is going to be better for everyone.”

As things unfold over time, and as you spend time alone with your children on your allotted days and nights, be open for questions. I believe this is vitally important. Welcome any conversation your child brings to you about this subject (or any subject). When the children share their feelings, it is your job to first validate them and acknowledge those feelings, just as a way to demonstrate that you “see” them today and that you love them unconditionally. This is crucial. However, when answering those kid questions be sure to keep the answer in high integrity, and a little vague. For example, “We’ve decided this is what’s best for our family,” and, “We like it this way,” are perfectly complete answers in our family. Speak only about yourself or about yourselves as a parental unit. Never speak solely for your ex, as it conveys a negative sense of exclusion to your child, and often asks the child to choose a side.

All of this is critical for your child’s sense of safety and security amid the changes and the new family dynamic. By not infusing any storyline or gossip into the mix, you keep your role as a solid “rock” for your kids. It preserves the children’s sense of your integrity, as well. By keeping your emotions with your ex away from your kids, you establishing deeper trust with your kid and putting them in the center.

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