The Hardest Conversation: What To Say To Kids When You’ve Decided To Divorce

One of the most dreaded steps in the divorce process — if not the most dreaded — is telling your kids your marriage is over and that their family as they’ve known it is about to change forever.

Some couples will put off divorcing because the idea of having the conversation with their kids is something they just can’t stomach. They also make peace with their procrastination by convincing themselves that dropping the D-bomb is exponentially worse than raising kids in a tense, angry household with two unhappy, disillusioned parents.

But if your kids are older — say, over 12 — they probably have a pretty good idea their parents aren’t happy. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a good bet. So if your kids are old enough to be “sat down” to have the divorce convo, there are some things they do need to hear from you as you roll out this unwelcome news.

1) This is hard. Tell them that making this decision and having this conversation with them are two of the hardest things you’ve ever had to do. Even if you’re relieved the marriage itself is ending, you’re not relishing the dissolution of your family. Let them hear that. By acknowledging these things, you’re assigning weight to them. In other words, you’re letting them know that neither you nor your spouse took lightly what brought you to this moment.

2)  There’s no perfect time to have this conversation. Anyone who’s been considering breaking this news to their kids already knows it’s been put off six ways to Sunday because of holidays, graduations, birthdays, college application processes, illnesses, or fill-in-the-blank. Life continually throws up roadblocks that make the timing of this conversation feel nearly impossible. And, chances are, there’s another occasion looming on the horizon even when you do sit down for it. Acknowledge that finding the right time to do this has been tough and you’ve tried to be thoughtful about that.

3) We did everything we could. Kids need to know you pulled out all the stops to hold your marriage together. And they likely have no idea how much effort you put into saving it. They don’t know about the all-night conversations, dozens of therapy sessions, rivers of tears, or years of peace you’ve sacrificed for the sake of the family. And, frankly, none of that matters now. What does matter is their need to know that this family was and is important enough to you that you tried everything to save it.

4) If it helps you to talk to someone about this, we support you. Do not —under any circumstances — ask your children to keep your divorce plans a secret. If you’re not ready for them to talk about it with their friends or grandparents, that means you’re not ready to tell them at all. And if talking with a therapist would be helpful for them, arrange that asap.

5) Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, marriages end in divorce. That’s all they need to know. What they don’t need to know is your take on what took the marriage down — because, for one thing, oversharing with your kids is inappropriate. And, for another, they don’t have the life experience to process it anyway. Keep it simple.

6) We’re going to do our best to keep your lives the same. Frankly, this is what kids care about most when their parents announce their impending divorce. They want to be assured they’ll still see their friends and continue going to the same schools. Acknowledging what’s important to them now is paramount. And by saying you’ll do your best, you’re not going overboard with guilty promises you simply may not be able to keep.

7) We’re still a family. Be clear that even though the marriage may be over, you’re still a family — albeit a revamped one. Let them know that what defines a family hasn’t changed: your love for them and your intention to continue to be a part of their lives in the same way.

8) Our marriage, our challenges, our decision. Often, kids will blame themselves for the marriage’s demise. They immediately go to the stress they’ve caused in the family (“If I only didn’t flunk math,” or “They’ve been fighting about my curfew,” or “It must be the pot they found in my room”). You want to disabuse them of these ideas — and any self-blame — immediately.

Because things are changing so dramatically, sometimes kids will attempt to extract promises from you in an effort to feel some control. Here are some things you may be asked to promise but shouldn’t unless you’re sure you can honor them:

1. You won’t date again until you have their say-so.

2. You won’t remarry soon…or ever.

3. You’ll try again to work things out in the marriage.

4. You and your soon-to-be-ex will remain close friends.

5. Your family will continue to spend holidays and vacations together.

Telling your kids divorce is imminent makes it real. Until now, it’s been a concept kept under wraps by you and your spouse. Once the kids know, the real dismantling begins. And that is what makes this conversation one of the hardest you’ll ever have. But, if you must, a little prep and a lot of love will go a long way.

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