Talking with your children about divorce
Divorce can be like a tsunami, and it can be extremely destabilizing for the whole family: parents and children.
While parents are faced with the difficulty of making the decision and working through it, children are at the receiving end of a decision they didn’t have any part in making or causing and which will substantially change their life. So communicating with children about the divorce is of paramount importance.
What and how you communicate to your children will depend on your specific circumstances and the age of your children. This article covers some general aspects of that communication. It will be followed by two articles with more information based on the children’s age group. Stay tuned!
How you communicate
Breaking the news
- You need to be thoughtful about the setting and circumstances for delivering the news, as these will have a long lasting impact on your children (life long, according to Psychology Today). Find an appropriate time and space, and give the news together with the other parent, as a family. This will give the message that many things will change, but the love, care and security you as parents provide will still be there.
- Avoid apologizing to your children about the divorce. Apologizing implies that you’ve done something wrong and you’re taking the blame. Instead, recognize your children’s pain and tell them you are there to help them through that pain in any way possible.
What you communicate
Again, this will depend on your circumstances and the age of your children, here we offer some general guidelines.
During the early stages of the divorce
- Tell your children it is not their fault. This message will likely need to be repeated throughout and after the divorce. Getting a divorce is an adult decision caused by adult problems. Be clear about the fact that your children are not responsible for it and cannot fix the problem or influence the decision. Do not blame or bad mouth the other parent. Children see themselves as equal parts of both parents. Blaming or insulting the other parent would only hurt the children, affect their self-esteem, and their relationship with both parents, as they won’t feel comfortable being with each parent without “betraying” the other.
- Be direct and simple. You don’t need to elaborate on the reasons of the divorce. You can explain that you and the other parent no longer love each other as a couple should.
- Be practical and focus on the children. Give them information about the new scenarios. Tell them how their day-to-day will change: who will move out, where the children will live. Describe a tentative schedule: where and with whom the children will be on what days. You and the other parent should try to decide on key child-related issues before talking with your children, so that you can communicate the changes to them as harmoniously as possible.
- Reassure the children that you and the other parent will still be parents together and you both will still be involved in their school, health matters, and any other extra activities, such as sports, religious practices, etc.
- Tell your children that you care for everyone’s happiness and well-being and model that care.
Throughout and after the divorce
- Keep adult issues separate from the children, regardless of their age. For example, do not share details about the legal proceedings and your meetings with your lawyer. It would only put an unnecessary burden on your children and would likely cause additional stress.
- Don’t use the children to send messages to the other parent and don’t ask the children about the other parent’s life. This would put children in the middle, and, with good intentions, some of them may “craft” the messages to protect a parent or try to get you two back together.
- Expect signs of distress. These vary largely depending the children’s age and personality. The most common signs by age group will be described in two upcoming articles. In general, be vigilant and observant. If you do notice signs of distress, take appropriate action.
- Get help if needed. For example, explore parenting classes and counseling. Some parents don’t think they need parenting classes, but the classes are actually very helpful: they’re usually presented by highly qualified professionals, they explore real life scenarios and are a great opportunity to ask questions and get expert advice. You can check with your local family service agency, your lawyer, or your counselor for information.
- Help your children develop a strong relationship with both parents: use co-parenting as much as possible, and minimize their exposure to conflict. Some circumstances might make all of that (and especially co-parenting) particularly challenging, even impossible. For example, one parent may have walked out on the children, or a child may not want to have a close relationship with one of the parents. These are things you can’t control. Still, even under those circumstances, you should respect and nurture your children’s relationship with both parents and not denigrate the other parent in front of your children.
 This series of articles has been particularly informed and inspired by the following off and on line sources:
Family Education and Support Services, Consider the children, A seminar for parents, caregivers and professionals
Hoffman, John (2016) An age-by-age guide for talking to kids about divorce https://www.todaysparent.com/family/kids-and-divorce-an-age-by-age-guide/
Zipp, Michele (2017) How To Talk To Your Kid About You & Your Partner’s Divorce In A Way They’ll Understand https://www.romper.com/p/how-to-talk-to-your-kid-about-you-your-partners-divorce-in-a-way-theyll-understand-58236