There may never be a good time to tell children you are ending the marriage. For kids, the breakup can be devastating. Here are a few strategies that can help you cushion the blow.
1. Write it out. This is not a talk that you should leave to chance. Regardless of who initiated the breakup or what circumstances got you here, you and your soon-to-be ex are still a team and you’re both responsible for delivering the news. So work out some ground rules before you bring in the kids. Agree on what you’re going to say and how. Agree that neither of you will blame the other, you won’t fight with each other, and you won’t pressure the kids to choose sides. If the two of you can’t stand to be in the same place at the same time, schedule separate conversations with your children — but you’ve got to follow the same rules.
2. Schedule it. There’s no way to tell exactly how much time you’ll need, but block out at least an hour so the kids will have plenty of space to react and ask questions. Don’t do it right before bedtime, in the car on the way to daycare or school, or just before you or your wife leave for work.
3. Make sure it’s real. If you and your spouse are still trying to work things out, do not tell your children that you’re thinking of getting a divorce. You’ll only scare them.
4. Think like a child. What you say and what your kids hear may not be the same thing. Most young children (and plenty of older ones too) will blame themselves for the divorce. It’s important to head that one off as soon as possible by telling them directly that it has nothing to do with them and that it’s something daddy and mommy have decided on together. In addition, you need to know that no matter what you tell them, most kids just want to know how the divorce will affect their life. Reassure them that even though mom and dad won’t be living together anymore, neither of you will ever stop loving them, that they’ll still get to spend a lot of time with each of you, and that you’ll always be there for them.
5. You’re never really done. After the initial discussion, your work is far from finished. It will take your kids a while to process what’s happening — and they’ll need extra time and attention from you. Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over.
6. Maintain routines. In other words, keep them enrolled at the same school, encourage playdates with the same friends, drive them to the same after-school activities and sports, and so on.
7. Include a support system. Tell anyone else who needs to know, including teachers, babysitters, and friends’ parents. Let them know what’s happening and ask them to tell you if they see any unusual behavior.
8. Be honest. It’s okay let your kids see that you’re sad about the breakup. But don’t put them in a position of having to comfort you. It’s your job to comfort them. And never, ever use your kids to spy on your ex or to pass messages to him/her. And never ever badmouth him/her in front of them. Never.
9. Know when to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or the kids seem to be having an especially hard time coping, find a therapist who can work with you, your spouse, and the kids together.