One of the most difficult and emotionally wrenching aspects of going through a separation or divorce is breaking the news to your children. Parents struggle with the timing of when they should tell their children and what they will actually say. Studies have shown that children hearing “the news” of their parents’ separation is a moment that changed their lives forever and is often replayed many times in their memory. As much as the ending of your marriage has been difficult and emotionally draining for you, as parents you can expect that there will be a significant impact on your children as well. You may experience initially strong emotional reactions from a child, such as shock, sadness, and anger or a child may withdraw and not react much at all in the moment of hearing the news. Each of your children may react very differently. Some children may be very inquisitive and ask questions which, as parents, you need to be prepared to answer as best as you can under the circumstances. Preparation for this discussion is crucial. How you tell your children and the words you choose can help your children know that they will always be loved, valued, and supported by both of you. Your first conversation about separating won’t be your last. To support them through this fundamental change in their lives, they will need to know that they will be taken care of by both parents and that you will be there for them.

Should you tell your children together or separately?

Generally, it is far better for both parents to set their feelings towards each other aside and sit down together to tell all the children at the same time. You don’t want your younger children hearing it first from their older sibling, rather than you as their parents. It is important for the children to see and hear from each of you that this decision to separate is what you, as parents, have decided is necessary. By telling them together, you are letting them know that you’re still a family, even if it is a family that may soon be living in two homes. This can also be a time for the children to see that you can still work together as a team to guide them and parent them. Again, it is most helpful to discuss carefully beforehand what you will be telling the children and to be as reassuring as possible and to avoid blame. 

What are the best ways to tell your children you are separating?

 You can start the conversation by telling the children that you both love them very much and you will both be there for them to talk and for whatever support they need. It’s important to emphasize that the decision to separate has to do with how the two of you as parents have been getting along- that it is absolutely not the fault of the children. You don’t need to go into the details of what went wrong in your marriage–that’s between the two of you. The problems of adults in relationships are hard to understand for children, especially younger ones. Instead, it may be helpful to explain that you have had problems for some time and you tried very hard to work them out, but weren’t able to do so and as a result, you have been unhappy living together. Because of this, you have decided to separate and this will mean there will be changes for them.

It may be slightly easier on the children if they hear initially you are separating, instead of saying you are divorcing.  Younger children don’t necessarily know what that means and older children do. The reality is that you are separating now, divorce does not occur immediately. By stating that you are separating you allow your children to get used to the idea over time. However, it is always important to be as honest as possible so they can rely on and trust what you are telling them and to not give them a false sense of hope that the situation will change if likely it will not change.

The children will understandably be concerned about what this means for them; where will they be living; where will they be going to school; will they still see their friends; and how much time will they spend with each of you? It’s best if you know what the living arrangements and parenting schedule will be before speaking with the children so that you can share that information with the children. For example, if you own a house, will you be selling the house or will one parent be staying in the house with the children? If you are selling the house, will they still be going to the same school or a different school? If the latter, will they still be able to see their friends? With one parent moving out, how often will they be with that parent? If you haven’t worked out all the details, you can tell them that you are both working to figure out the living arrangements and the parenting schedule and will discuss this all with them as soon as you know.

Again, it’s important to emphasize that your decision to separate has nothing to do with anything your child has done or said. Your child is not at fault.  While older children will most likely know this, younger children may blame themselves. Be ready to listen to your children’s questions. However they react, let them know you understand how they feel and you appreciate how difficult this is for them.

Pitfalls to avoid when telling your children 

The children may want you to go into greater detail about why you are getting separated. The reasons you are getting separated or divorced are complex. You don’t need the children to evaluate who was more at fault and to choose sides. It will be far better for their emotional wellbeing now and into adulthood if they are not pulled between the two of you. They need the support of both parents.

In terms of the timing of telling the children, it can be helpful to tell them at the beginning of a weekend when they can be around you more and will have more time to process the information and to ask questions. Generally, it is best to avoid this conversation around a holiday or special birthday which might many years into the future negatively impact the enjoyment of that holiday or celebration.

Because this conversation is so difficult and sad, you may be tempted to keep the conversation short. Just being there for your children and allowing them to express their feelings will go a long way toward showing them your love and support. Try as much as possible to manage your own emotions so they don’t overwhelm the children but it is honestly a sad time and it is ok for your children to know you have emotions too. 

Final Takeaways Whether you choose the mediation process or the collaborative law process, our Long Island divorce mediators will discuss your particular family situation to help you determine when the best time would be to speak with your children and what you should say given your children’s ages and personalities. If the first conversation goes well, it will provide a foundation for your family to adjust and still thrive in this new reality.

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