No matter how old your children might be, this will not be an easy conversation. You will have to understand that, in your children’s perspective, you and your husband are and have always been Mummy and Daddy rather than other adults. Telling them you are ending your marriage will cause them uneasiness, as if their whole childhood is being revised. Expect some distress for everyone.
Our experience with other women who have faced this event leads us to make the following recommendations:
- Tell your children together, if at all possible. This way, they can use each other as a support system in that moment.
- Avoid blame. At the time you break this news of your divorce, assigning blame to either you or your husband in any way could alienate the children from either of you. It also places them in the middle, positioned to choose sides, which is extremely painful for a child at any age.
- Address how the divorce is going to impact them. Be prepared to answer such important questions as: Who is going to pay tuition, if they're still in college? If they have children of their own, how are you both going to stay involved as grandparents? How are you going to maintain family traditions? What will happen for the holidays? And if you haven’t yet thought about these subjects, you and your husband need to prepare in advance to answer such questions.
- Be prepared to repeat what you say as your children probably won’t remember everything the first time. This news may be overwhelming for them, making it will be hard for them to absorb the information because they could go into “emotional shock.”
- Expect anger. They may need your permission to be angry, or they may outright express their anger. You’ll need to be prepared to accept those angry emotions without getting defensive or angry yourself. Their anger may focus on the timing of the divorce. If they ask why you’re splitting now, after spending 20 or 30 years or more together, tell them you're just not happy together anymore or whatever simple truth is appropriate. What you absolutely do not want to say is, “We stayed together for you.” This would make them feel responsible for your unhappiness. Even if you believe you did stay for the children, this admission is unfair.
- Set realistic expectations. Don’t expect your children to be happy for you, even if you feel the divorce is a good thing, or even a long time coming.
- Understand that adult children may blame themselves in the same way small children do. Your adult children may understand that there was conflict and communication issues within the marriage—or maybe not. Either way, the announcement may cause them to review their childhood for signs that their parents’ marriage was struggling. They may wonder if they could have done something to help, or to prevent the divorce.
- Focus on the final message you want to give when preparing what you’ll say to your children. If you’re able to communicate reassurances as to your availability in the future, do so. Also, reconfirm their potential to have an intact family in the future, even though it didn’t work out for you. It’s important to communicate that you both will still be available despite the split.
- Emphasize the most important message you have for your children: Make sure you acknowledge that you know this will be painful for them and it will change their lives, but it will not change your love for them.
Telling your adult children that the life they’ve always known—coming home to two parents in one household—is ending can be pretty rough. There are other tough decisions to make when ending any marriage that has lasted several years. Navigating your course through divorce can be overwhelming. When you need compassionate help, contact Paul Nathan by phone or by using the handy live chat function on this page.