Q: My husband and I are planning to separate. How do I tell my child about this upcoming change?
A: That is a great question—often it feels as though there is never the right time or perfect way to have this conversation. Experts say that it is not the divorce itself that has the greatest impact on the child, but rather the actions parents take during it. Discussing the upcoming separation is the first step.
First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind there are different strategies for how to approach this topic depending on your child’s age. With younger children, use language they will understand. For instance, the terms “separation” or “divorce” may not mean much to them, so try explaining it in the context of “mommy and daddy will not be living together” and “being married is not working.” While there may be numerous uncertainties, be sure to explain that some things will change and it is okay if you do not have all the answers about how exactly things are going to change. During this conversation, we encourage you to highlight that no matter what, you will never stop loving them.
Now for adult children—regardless of their age, you are the parents and want to care for them through this process. If your child now resides out of the home, inform them you want to speak with them, but be sure to reassure them there is no illness or death. It can by scary to receive a call from mom or dad simply stating, “we need to talk.” While face to face conversations are encouraged, they may not be feasible, so try alternative options such as FaceTime or Skype. For adult children, things such as, where they should expect to come home for holidays, what is going to happen to the family house, and who is going to pay college tuition are additional topics that may need to be addressed. You can expect anger and even shock, which may require you to repeat information several times before it begins to resonate with them. Try your best to normalize their reactions and avoid invalidating their thoughts and feelings. Another thing to avoid is telling them you delayed the separation because of them. With adult children, it can also be helpful to share you believe in family and your separation or divorce does not mean they will not be able to have strong and happy relationships. Additionally, if you have more than one adult child, try to share the news at the same time. This may require considering multiple schedules and some planning.
As mentioned above, there is no perfect way to go about this conversation. Make sure you have ample time carved out to have this discussion, so that you do not find yourself rushing your child. Also, consider practicing ahead of time while anticipating reactions. After all you know your child better than anyone. Regardless of age, steer clear of bashing your partner, falling down the rabbit hole of the blame game, and discussing specifics of the separation. Instead, encourage open communication and offer support. After all, it is a process for everyone. If you feel like your child is struggling with the news and upcoming transitions, consider meeting with a specialist to help navigate this life experience.