This divorce is getting more real by the minute. The family you envisioned on your wedding day is not going to look the same, and that sucks. No one wanted this, and your kids need you to talk them through it.
Then come right back (follow the link at the end of that post) to learn how to actually do this.
These steps will guide you through the talk and the aftermath. I’m sure you’re wondering what your kids will think and how you can help them. After reading this, you’ll understand how divorce can affect kids and what you can do about it.
1. Open the talk. Ask what your child already knows about fighting or divorce.
Maybe they’ve noticed the disagreements and new sleeping arrangements. Perhaps they have classmates who go between mom and dad's house for holidays.
Just ask! No need to fear. Kids know so much these days, and that's a good thing in this case.
2. State it simply. “Your mom/dad and I won’t be living together anymore.”
The words don’t need to be perfect. This is messy no matter how you put it.
Sometimes the first is the worst, so just do it. Your kids just need to understand what divorce means. Explain it using words they know. They will let you know if they’re confused, and you will have the chance to say it the way you meant to.
It’s ok to bet nervous and uncomfortable.
It’s also ok for your kids to see this. It would be weird if you were super relaxed and confident in what you’re saying! The whole family will be hurting and emotional, and that’s something you can all go through together.
3. Reinforce love. “We both love you very much, and this is not your fault.”
Children want to believe the best about their parents. After all, they love you and need you to survive! It’s natural for them to try to fix things for you or make you happy.
Kids need reassurance that the divorce has nothing to do with what they did or didn’t do.
Don’t let them wonder if you would stay together if they did a little better in school or listened more at home.
Kids need to hear that this will be a hard change for everyone but ultimately is the best way for mommy and daddy to be happy.
4. Allow questions. Open the floor for questions and answer them honestly.
“What part are you most worried about? Do you have any questions about what will happen?”
Be completely honest in your answers. The fact that they’re so little CANNOT be your excuse to not talk in-depth about the divorce with your kids.
Use words and examples and ideas you know your little one will understand.
Tell your little ones that if they’re confused or worried or angry or have questions or want to tell you something, they can tell you right away. Maybe suggest that they will have your listening ears in the car, during dinner, or at bedtime.
5. Reflect and repeat. Give labels to their feelings. Paraphrase their words.
If you see your little one shut down, let them know you notice. “You look a little lost. Maybe you’re a little overwhelmed and need some time to think.”
If they’re angry, show them you can accept that. “You’ve been throwing toys again. I wonder if you’re angry that mommy and daddy won’t be living together anymore.”
When their words hurt and you don’t know what to say, just repeat what they said. You can’t fix this, the divorce is happening. Show love by listening closely.
“I know you are confused and don’t want us to get a divorce.”
6. Stick with it! Use your coping strategies to stay present for the kids.
Are you breathing deeply? Breathe again.
Hold onto that mantra, “We’re going to get through this.”
Pause. Take a sip of your tea or water.
When your thoughts start racing, look closely at your baby’s sweet little face, notice the color of their eyes and shape of their nose, and tune in to what’s happening right in front of you.
7. Be flexible. Kids communicate through behavior. Set limits AND be flexible.
Help your children identify comforting objects or routines (i.e. longer bath time with mommy or daddy, singing favorite songs).
Try to limit avoidable changes in their lives right now. Keep bringing them to dance and baseball every week.
Do your best not to over-schedule your kids. They will need space, playtime, and downtime in their days to be able to think and feel what is happening inside and around them. The more you give of this now, the less likely they are to have problems down the road.
Bring other family members around more often. Plan a day for auntie or papa to take the kids to the park. Having a community of supportive people helps kids to feel secure when they learn their parents will be separating.
Your kids may have some trouble sleeping, may be a little more clingy, could become whiny or fussy. Practice patience and comfort them like you did when they were younger.
You may even see some extra anger (more fighting with their big brother, arguing with you) that doesn’t seem at all connected to your divorce talk…and your child probably won’t understand that the divorce is what’s bothering them deep down. It’s your job as a parent to anticipate that, be understanding, and provide extra comfort.
Don’t let them get away with murder! Being flexible doesn’t mean throwing rules out the window and letting your kids walk all over you because you feel bad. Kids need rules just as much as they need love in order to feel safe and secure.
Time-outs can still happen. Toys can still be taken away. Dessert may not happen every night. This tells kids life isn’t stopping because of the divorce. Things at home are still consistent and predictable.
8. Check-in often. It’s an ongoing conversation. Keep the door open.
Maybe once a week when you’re headed home for the evening you ask your kids what they have thought about since the divorce talk you all had.
Remind them that if they’re upset or want to ask questions, they can come to you any time and you won’t be angry or sad because of it.
This isn’t a one and done thing. You will all be learning what it’s like to have a family in two households for years to come. Don’t ignore the topic, but take it one day at a time instead of smothering your kids with concern.
You can do this.
Divorce is painful in so many different ways, and talking to your young kids is one the hardest parts.
If you're still feeling stuck or too emotional this may be the time to reach out for help. Call a friend or family member.
If you feel like everyone you know has too many opinions, I am here to talk without judging or telling you what you should or shouldn't do. Go ahead and message me today.