How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce (Part One)

In this two-part post, we'll share strategies for supporting your children through your divorce.

By Laura Vogel, Ph.D. Director of Early Childhood Therapy | Feb 08, 2016
Divorce Part 2

This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common
Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

You and your partner have decided to get a divorce. Now you have to find a way to share the news with your kids. You’re naturally worried about this – what if they cry or get angry? What if they say nothing? What if they ask hard questions? So before you dive into this big conversation, here are a few tips that can help you prepare and be available to support your children.

If you and your partner can have the conversation together with the kids, that is ideal. You need to be honest with yourself about whether the status of your relationship will allow you to calmly sit in the room together and have this tough conversation. But if you think you can do it together, the kids will benefit from hearing the same story from both of you.

It’s also helpful if you can have as much information about the future living situation as possible before talking to the kids. You don’t need to have every detail planned out, but you’ll want to know if one person is moving out, if both people are moving, etc. The kids will have lots of questions about their new living situation, so to the extent that you can prepare that information, it can help quell some anxiety.

When you do sit down with the kids, be gentle but clear. “Your dad and I have made a decision that we can no longer be married. We want you to know that this has nothing to do with you. We will always continue to be your parents for as long as we live. We will always be your parents and we will always love you.”

Just as every child is unique, every child’s response to this conversation will be different. Some kids will ask a lot of questions; some will say nothing. Younger kids tend to ask really specific questions about their living situation. Will I still live in this house? Will I have two bedrooms? What will my other bedroom look like? Older kids can be more intuitive and sometimes know that this is coming. If there has been tension and arguing in the home, an older child’s response might be more complicated and include both sadness or anger along with a sense of relief. 

Your child might be really angry. She might scream and ask, “WHY?!” and shed tears. She might be angry with one parent and not the other. If this happens, viewing this as a good sign that your child is connected to you enough to express her feelings may help you stay patient with her process. She is essentially asking you to hold on to her big feelings and help her work through them.

Your child might say nothing. This is okay, too. Take her lead. Forcing her to talk about something will not be helpful, however, she needs to have overt permission that she can talk about it when she is able. Let her know, “I know this is a lot to take in. You probably have a whole lot of feelings right now. I am here to talk to you about it, now, or whenever you are ready.”

Similarly, your child might not seem to react at all. You may explain it all to her, and then she might say, “Okay. What’s for dinner?” You should be prepared for any response. It’s impossible to know how a child might react to this news. Remember, you have had time to process this experience. You’ve seen it coming for a long time, but your child is just hearing it for the first time. The important thing is to be available whenever she is ready to talk.

Your child might ask a lot of questions. She might want to know why you are getting divorced. She might want to know who “messed up.” She might want to know why you can’t just fix it. Your answers should be appropriate for her age. You do not need to share details of the divorce with your children. They do not need to know about fighting, infidelity or financial struggles. But you can say things like, “We tried and we have grown apart.” Or, “We are just not able to stay married. We no longer want to be married to each other.” However, be sure to emphasize that being married is different from being a parent. Children need to hear that divorce is about the adults and does not change the love you have for your child.

Your child might ask the same question over and over. It might make you want to pull your hair out or say, “I already answered that!” But this may be your child’s way of processing this news. If you’re in this situation, just answer her same question over and over. She may find comfort in hearing your same answer every time.

If you are unable to have the conversation together, speak kindly of your partner. In Part 2 of this post, we will focus on the ongoing relationship between you and your co-parent, but it starts here. You do not want your children to be collateral in an adult fight. So you should follow the age-old advice, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Stick to phrases like, “Your dad and I have tried and do not want to be married.” “Your dad will always love you and will always be your dad, even when we are not married.” You cannot control the message that the other person will give to your children, but you can control your part of it. So do your best to be kind and respectful.

In the next post, we’ll dive into the process of working with your kids through the divorce experience.