For most people getting divorced is a gut-wrenchingly painful process. For those with children, it can be even more painful as you witness the negative impact that the separation, divorce and many other divorce-related changes have on your children. As a divorce lawyer for over 20 years I have seen many clients struggle with this issue. As a divorced parent myself I can attest that this was one of the most difficult parts of the process.
One of the most significant events of the divorce process is the beginning – specifically, when the kids first find out that mom and dad are separating. Handle that discussion well and many potential problems can be avoided or at least minimized. Handle it poorly and the situation could become much worse for your children than it needs to be.
This is the time to rise above whatever feelings of animosity you may have towards your spouse. While you may feel 100% that you are the victim in this relationship, you need to be focused completely on your child and how this impacts them. DO NOT use this as an opportunity to convince your child that the divorce is solely the fault of your spouse.
In this article I will outline some general tips and best practices for how to tell your children that you’re getting a divorce. The information provided is based on research from various authoritative sources (see the end of the article for links to resources), as well as my own experience as a divorce lawyer for over 20 years.
I will first address some guidelines that apply to all children and then will provide suggestions for specific age ranges.
General Tips for Explaining Divorce to Your Children (Applies to All Ages)
While every situation is different and every child is unique, there are some best practices that apply in nearly all situations. Obviously, many of these suggestions would not be appropriate under extreme circumstances. For example, if there has been family violence and a Protective Order has been entered, then telling the children together would not only be inappropriate but would actually violate the court order. However, for most couples following these guidelines will significantly help your kids deal with the divorce.
First let’s start with the list of things that you should do when having this conversation with your children.
Things You Should Do When Telling Kids about Your Divorce
Both Parents Should Be Present – You are both getting divorced, you are both going to continue parenting your children and therefore you both need to be present when your children first learn of the divorce. Both of you being present and jointly explaining this major life change to them can go a very long way in helping them to accept the situation.
- Have a Plan – You and your spouse should have a general idea of what you will say and what issues will be addressed. It might not even be a bad idea to have some notes or outline the conversation and go over it first with your spouse. You want to avoid any conflicting statements between the two of you and discuss how to address any of these potential issues ahead of time, outside the presence of your children. Obviously, it would be very counterproductive if the two of you begin arguing while you are breaking the divorce news to your children.
- Stay Calm – Your children look to you for leadership. You want to appear calm and in control of the situation. While it may be difficult to keep your emotions in check during this conversation do your best to do so. If your children see their parents as out of control emotionally this will probably scare them and make a bad situation worse. Don’t beat yourself up if you shed a few tears during this conversation, but do your best to avoid completely losing control.
- Encourage Them to Ask Questions – After you have told them about the divorce and all the related issues that you and your spouse have agreed to address, ask your children what questions they have. Be prepared for them to ask questions that make you uncomfortable and that you do not have an answer to or that you don’t believe should be discussed with them. For example, if they ask a question that has not been decided yet, like whether the house will be sold and they will have to move, then just tell them honestly “we’re not sure, it hasn’t been decided yet.”
- Answer Questions Candidly – With the exception of issues that they do not need to know about (for example, causes of the divorce or whether one of the spouses is having an affair), you want to be as honest as possible with your children. It doesn’t help matters to promise them something (“no, of course we will never sell the house”) only to have to break your promise a few months later. Broken promises like this will significantly damage your credibility with them and make them feel uncertain about the future.
- Tell Them Honestly How Their Life Will Be Impacted – There are quite possibly things that you and your spouse have already decided that will directly affect your child. Things like what the initial visitation schedule will be (“You will spend every other weekend with each of us…”), that they will continue doing all the extracurricular activities that they are in (“You will keep playing soccer the way you always have”), or that they will keep living in the house. Of course, this is also a good time to tell them of any specifics that will change (“Daddy will be getting an apartment nearby next week and you will get to spend some of your nights at his apartment”).
Next, let’s address some things you want to avoid while explaining the divorce to your children.
Things You Should Not Do When Telling Kids about Your Divorce
- Do Not Blame Your Spouse for the Divorce – Ideally you are telling the kids together with your spouse and you have previously agreed on how to handle the conversation. Specifically, you should agree with your spouse that you will not blame each other for the situation. While you might think it would feel good to let your child know that the divorce is your spouse’s fault and the family is splitting up as a result of an affair, that feeling would quickly turn to regret when you see the pain on your child’s face as they come to realize that their parents are overtly hostile to one another. Do what is best for your children and do not involve them in issues that they will not be able to handle.
- Avoid Getting Overly Emotional – While it is completely understandable that you would get upset while telling your children about the upcoming divorce, as much as possible try to reign in those emotions during this conversation. If your child sees you falling apart they will feel like things are out of control. This is not the impression you want them to have. You want to provide leadership during this time of change and you can’t do that if you appear like you have lost it.
- Do Not Discuss Adult Issues – It goes without saying that you should avoid discussing divorce-related issues with the kids. They do not need to know about the upcoming temporary orders hearing, that the amount of child support is too high/too low and the financial stress that places on you, that you have a hearing coming up, etc. All of these are adult issues that your children do not need to be stressed out by.
- Do Not Make Promises You Cannot Deliver – Given the situation it would be understandable if you find yourself wanting to soften the blow by promising your child certain outcomes. For example, you might say that they will not have to change schools even though it is possible that you might need to sell the house and move before the next school year. While more painful in the short term you need to be honest with your children. If you promise something important and later you cannot deliver it would be very unsettling to your kids.
- Do Not Tell Them Prematurely – With most divorces there is an extended period of time where you and your spouse are discussing the possibility of separating. Often these “discussions” take the form of rather loud arguments that hopefully occur outside the hearing of your children. During this phase it is very common for couples to vacillate over whether to go through with the divorce. When it comes to your children the key is to avoid discussing with them the possibility of divorce. You do not want to have a conversation where you tell them that you “may” separate. You should only discuss the issue with them after you and your spouse have decided (ideally, mutually) that you need to separate.
- Do Not Give Them False Hope of Reconciliation – This last issue is a very common one. In many divorces one spouse does not want the divorce and is still hopeful that a reconciliation is possible. Even if neither you nor your spouse is hoping for a reconciliation, your children probably will be. It is quite possible that when you discuss the divorce with your children (or at some later point) that you will be asked if you might work things out and stay together. You really want to avoid giving them false hope of reconciliation. Such a hope will make it very hard for them to accept the situation and move on.
Next let’s discuss some specific suggestions for dealing with children of different ages.
Tips for Telling Preschool Age Kids About Your Divorce
Most preschoolers don’t understand the concept of divorce and what the ramifications of it are. Regardless of how unpleasant the home environment is a preschooler is likely to be very resistant to the idea of divorce or separation. They are also likely to view the divorce as being their fault.
At this stage of their development children have a tendency to view everything that happens as a result of their actions. Consequently, they need reassurance that the divorce is not their fault and that both parents love them just as they always have and that they will have two homes and two parents who will love and care for them.
Here are a few tips that are specific to explaining divorce to preschool age children:
- Explain Divorce in a Way They Will Understand – Focus on the changes that will impact them and explain it to them as simply as possible. Keep it simple and tell them about the changes that they will notice, like spending time at two different homes and any other big schedule changes.
- Be Open and Positive About the Upcoming Changes – Children this age are fairly adaptable and will often be quickly accepting of change if you lead them appropriately. The best way to encourage this is to act positive and calm about the upcoming changes.
- Explain that Both Parents Still Love Them – While this might seem obvious to you or I, it isn’t obvious to a preschooler. They need frequent and consistent reaffirmation that they are loved, that the divorce has nothing to do with them, and that both parents will continue to be an ongoing part of their lives.
Tips for Telling Elementary School Kids About Your Divorce
Children this age have a much better understanding of what divorce is and are likely to have school friends whose parents are divorced. This more advanced stage will be helpful in terms of allowing them to express their feelings. Unfortunately, they are also more likely to have angry outbursts and also hold fast to the idea that the two of you will reconcile and things will go back to the way that they were.
Here are some specific suggestions on handling this conversation with your elementary aged child:
- Get Them to Express Their Feelings – Letting your child have an outlet to explain how they feel will in itself be helpful. You can tell them that you wished you could fix it for them but while that is just not possible you are both there for them and will listen whenever they want to talk about it.
- Don’t Give False Hope of Reconciliation – This was addressed above in the general do’s and don’ts section, but it is especially true when dealing with elementary age children. They will very often hold out hope that you and your spouse will get back together. You want to be clear and consistent that this is not going to happen. Your child will find it very difficult to accept the situation while they still believe that reconciliation is a possibility.
Tips for Telling Teenagers About Your Divorce
Teenagers are in that twilight between childhood and adulthood. But make no mistake, they are not adults and no matter how mature your child is they will need your support and guidance as they adjust to the new situation and all the changes that come along with it.
Here are a few suggestions on explaining the divorce to your teenager:
- Do Not Lean on Your Teen for Support – This suggestion applies both during the initial conversation as well as later on. A lot of teenagers are very mature and may seem as though they will handle the situation just fine. In fact, they may seem to have things so together that you feel comfortable using them for support. This should absolutely be avoided. They should not be put in the unfair position of helping you get through this situation, it needs to be the other way around. Remember that your teen is still a child.
- Do Not Share Unnecessary Details – Especially if you have a mature teenager, it may be tempting to answer their questions about why the divorce is happening. You should stay away from these kinds of discussions, particularly about who is to blame. Explain to your teen the changes that will occur in their life, listen to their concerns and be understanding, but absolutely do not share with them unnecessary details about the divorce.
- Expect Your Teen to Have a Self-Centered Reaction – Teens are much more likely than younger children to immediately react to news of the divorce with an angry response. They may be upset about the possibility of having to move or change schools or any changes brought on by the new financial situation, especially if it means they will have to give up an expensive extracurricular activity. This can be upsetting to a parent who is already dealing with a difficult situation the best way they can. Remember that this kind of selfish response is developmentally normal and should not be overreacted to.
- Stay Calm – When you have the divorce discussion with a teenager it is quite possibly that they will have a very strong emotional reaction, maybe even rising to the level of rage. This is the time to stay as calm as possible and let their emotions play out. They may say ugly and painful things, maybe even blaming you for the situation. If necessary, end the discussion and explain that you will discuss it with them later. Give them whatever space they need but do not return their hostility.
One of the most important stages of your divorce will be telling your children about it. You want to do it in a way that minimizes their anxiety as much as possible. Here is a summary of the do’s and don’ts of telling your children about your divorce.
Do’s for Explaining Divorce to Kids (all ages)
- Both Parents Should Be Present
- Have a Plan
- Remain Calm
- Encourage Questions
- Answer Questions Honestly
- Discuss How Their Life Will Be Impacted
Don’ts for Explaining Divorce to Kids (all ages)
- Do Not Blame Your Spouse for the Divorce
- Avoid Getting Overly Emotional
- Do Not Discuss Adult Issues
- Do Not Make Promises You Cannot Deliver
- Do Not Tell Them Prematurely
- Do Not Give Them False Hope of Reconciliation
Tips for Preschoolers
- Explain Divorce in a Way They Will Understand
- Be Open and Positive About the Upcoming Changes
- Explain that Both Parents Still Love Them
Tips for Elementary School Kids
- Get Them to Express Their Feelings
- Don’t Give False Hope of Reconciliation
Tips for Teenagers
- Do Not Lean on Your Teen for Support
- Do Not Share Unnecessary Details
- Expect Your Teen to Have a Self-Centered Reaction
- Stay Calm
If you would like additional information on the topic here are some excellent resources on the topic: