Informing your children that you and your spouse are divorcing is not easy, nor should it be. But you can alleviate some of the pain and the pressure if you stick to a game plan based on simplicity, truth and emotional comfort.
1. Avoid sharing inappropriate information with children. Don't discuss adult details with your children. They either won't understand what you're talking about or will resent you for a number of reasons: You're bad mouthing the other parent, you're overburdening them, and you are providing them a hidden request to judge the situation, in your favor. Tell them what they need to know in an honest and sincere manner. Keep the focus on the kids, not on the adults, in terms of how this will impact their lives: Will they be moving? When will they see each of you?
2. Keep a unified parental front. Your kids would feel more secure and less anxious if you set clear and mutually agreed upon expectations and boundaries and send clear and similar messages about your divorce and its subsequent transitions. There is nothing more confusing to a child than to hear conflicting messages from the two most trusted adults in his or her life. While you may disagree on some day-to-day operations, or just have different parenting styles, you'll do your kids a lot of good.
3. Don't play the blame game. Of course, you know the reason why the separation is occurring. Or you think you do. (And let's be totally honest -- your spouse probably has his or her own ideas.) The kids don't need to know any of this. Why? If you blame your soon-to-be ex for the separation, you may indirectly give the child a reason to choose sides. It is unhealthy for your child to feel that there is someone to blame for the separation. Keep your thoughts about your ex to yourself. Choose productive and neutral language when you talk about your ex to your kids, his or her children just as much.
4. The kids didn't cause this. Make sure they know that. Your best bet is to give the kids the reason for the separation but make it external to both of you and something that they can live with. "We grew apart" is a good one. "Your mom/dad is a great mom/dad but we just don't get along as a couple" is good as well. The reality (in your mind) and what you actually tell the kids, really do not have to match. It's not their fault, it's an external reason that is not the fault of any of you: you, your spouse or your kids. And for their own well-being, that's all they need to know.
5. It's not over until it's over. Refrain from telling the children that you are divorcing unless you and your spouse are absolutely certain that the decision is final. Your best bet is to wait until you have a signed divorce agreement with specified custody arrangements and one of you is ready to move out. However, this may not be possible in every case. If so, talk to your soon to be ex about when to break the news. Do not tell the kids without telling your ex, it is not fair towards your ex and not fair towards your kids.
6. Timing is everything. Pick a time where you and your ex are emotionally ready to support the kids, in whichever way they end up reacting. If you can arrange a support system for them from other family members, great. Inform their teacher and guidance counselor. Do not do this to them right before graduation or an important exam. Choose your timing carefully.
7. Consistency is key -- to the best of your ability. Be as specific as you can in telling your kids what they should expect in the future as far as school and living arrangements. Give them concrete information and stick to it. Do not make promises that you cannot keep. Knowing what to expect and then seeing that it actually happens, will alleviate a lot of their anxieties.
8. Stay calm. Your kids are watching you. All the time. If you are anxious, they will be anxious. If you are out of control, they will be out of control as well. It is ok to grieve, all of you, it is normal. It is not ok as a parent to be out of control in front of the kids, badmouth the other parent or neglect the kids' routines. Breath, deeply, and be there for your kids. They need you.