You may be thinking about telling your kids you are separating because they are asking questions and not telling them in clear terms what is going on feels like a lie by omission. Or, maybe one of you are getting ready to move out and you would like your kids to come home knowing in advance one of you will not be there. Either way, telling your kids you are separating or getting a divorce is an important moment. And, there are issues to which you should pay attention.
Timing. Try to inform your kids at a time when they will have an opportunity to react and think about it before returning to school. Telling them when they have some free time gives them an opportunity to ask questions, be upset and then recover. Having two or three days between finding out and returning to school can provide the time needed. Plan to be around after you tell them so you can provide support and comfort, if they need it. And then, when the dust has settled, answer questions.
Most parents try to avoid telling their kids near an important date like holidays or birthdays. The concern is that this negative day might forever color a positive day. There may be some research that speaks to the validity of this concern but I am not aware of it. To be on the safe side, pay attention to it.
I suggest telling them one day (a family meeting) expecting some amount of upset with both parents around, if possible. Let them sleep on it and the next day make a point of giving them an opportunity to ask questions (a followup family meeting).
Your kids’ personal concerns. Make a list of the things your kids might be concerned about. The idea is to be prepared to answer their questions, if they ask them, and, thereby, reduce their anxiety.
Their anxiety will not completely be addressed until they see their concerns play out in practice. But, you can reduce the intensity between the time they find out you are separating and when the separation has been implemented.
If they do not ask questions and seem anxious, you are then also in a position to guess right about what they might be concerned about. Every kid is different and you know your child best. However, in general, kids concerns tend to be linked to their age as how they perceive their needs expands as they get older. Here are some examples.
For 2 to 4 year olds – Will not understand what separation means until they see it in practice, then they will react. What did I do wrong? This age group tends to feel responsible for everything, so it makes sense they would blame themselves. As they get older this feeling of omnipotence will diminish.
For 5 year olds add practical concerns – Will I have a bed at your house? Is there food at your house? Where will my brothers and sisters be? They will need you to show them. Telling them close to the time you can show them will be useful.
For 6-12 year olds add – Will I still be able to see my friends? Go to the same school? Play soccer? Can I take my game system with me? Will you have cable? Internet access?
For 13-18 year olds add – Can I keep my cell phone? Play in the school band? Have a car? Go to college? How close will you live to my boyfriend/girlfriend?
Many of these are linked to where each of you will live. If you have not made a decision about the house or where whoever moves out will live, you might want to wait until you figure it out before you tell your kids, so you can answer the questions.
Your kids in relation to you. It is very likely they will wonder, Is it OK with you that I love the other parent? Are you asking me to choose between you? Will I loose one of you?
It would be useful if you had a parenting time schedule figured out in advance that you can share with them. The schedule will show them how each of you will be in their lives.
Speaking with them together would be ideal. If you would like to speak to them together, develop a script and both speak. The point is that they will see you working together for them. Which suggests, you intend continue to be working together for them.
Another way that kids are given the message that they are not being asked to choose between you is by avoiding exposing them to your perspective about why you think you are not responsible for the separation. Whether it is you speaking with each other, your extended family or friends within their earshot or speaking directly to them, exposing them to your perspective invites them to take sides and, thereby, choose between you. You can avoid this by having your discussions about why you are separating away from your kids. If they are home, assume they are listening. If you want to speak freely, go somewhere else.
They may not ask why you are separating. But if they do, it would be useful if you have an age appropriate blameless explanation. Here is one you are welcome to use. This is for kids old enough to know that relationships are important.
“When people get together to have a relationship, everyone wants the same thing, a relationship that lasts a lifetime. Well, relationships are hard work. People in relationships are challenged in many ways. Most of the time they overcome the challenges. But sometimes, the challenge or challenges are too great and things don’t work out.”
If they ask what the challenges were, keep it general; communication breakdown, drawn in different directions, etc. If they press for more, there is a point where information is “personal.” You can label it that way and go no further.
A parent once told me their kids knew why they were getting a divorce. The other parent had a drinking problem. The point of the blameless explanation is the message, “I’m not asking you to choose.”
Conclusion. Parents separating is always a loss and always traumatic for kids. Though it may also be a relief to them if they have been exposed to your struggle. Thinking through speaking with your child about your separation can help keep the trauma to a minimum. Timing the discussion so they have a chance to adjust before having to do something else and putting yourself in a position to speak to their concerns prior to informing them will help you manage this challenge as well as is possible.