The hardest part — how to tell your children about divorce
Updated: May 12, 2021
It doesn’t matter how hard things get for you as the parent — divorce is much harder on children. However, you can mitigate the negative effects with a proper approach and planning.
In this article, we explore how to handle your divorce where children are concerned, along with helping you understand the different ways you can go about explaining divorce to a child.
Beginning the conversation is the hardest part.
When you’re in the process of beginning a separation or divorce, one of the most daunting tasks is knowing how to address the issue with your children.
The physiological effects of divorce on children begin the moment you decide to separate from your partner. The steps and actions you take along the way, including how you explain the divorce to your children, can make or break their ability to overcome the emotional stress of the breakup.
One of the first things that many of our clients ask for advice on how to tell their children they are getting a divorce.
Regardless of their age, children often experience intense emotions when their parents separate. Children of divorce may experience worry, anger, grief, resentment or even hopelessness. As their parent, you can avoid as much of these negative feelings as possible by — it is your job as their parent to deliver this news with as minimum hurt as possible.
If you need a quick guide to get started, we offer a range of divorce courses that can help you understand the different ways to talk with your children about divorce — along with helping to get you the support needed through this challenging time.
How to have an age-appropriate conversation with your children about divorce
No matter what the situation when a relationship breaks down, if you have children, they should always be your primary concern. In this section, we talk about the impact of divorce on children at different ages, along with some practical points to consider before explaining divorce to a child.
Children aged 0-4 Years
Children belonging to this age group are considered to be the most dependant on their parents, and consequently, fear tends to be their strongest emotion.
Babies and small children won’t have the same awareness as older children — however, they will still pick up on your emotional state. Because this age group will not be able to verbalise their feelings, negative emotions may begin to become apparent in their behaviour. For instance, regressing to an earlier developmental stage with the potential for bed wetting, wanting a bottle, being clingy, and generally quite difficult to settle at night.
For this age group, it’s important to keep yourself as calm and healthy as possible. They can sense stability and reassurance in your presence, ease and tone of voice.
Children Aged Between 5-8 Years
Children of this age have a much firmer grasp of the reality of divorce — they are aware when one parent is missing from the picture.
Explaining divorce to a child of this age can leave them feeling quite fearful — particularly about losing their non-resident parent from the family home. This is the age group most likely to struggle with split loyalties as they don’t yet understand the complexities of adult relationships and split their world simply into good feelings and bad ones.
It’s important to reassure this age group that separations from one parent or the other are only temporary and remind them of your love for them as much as you can.
Children Aged Between 9-12 Years
Children belonging to this age group, also known as ‘tweenagers,’ still see the world in black and white. As a direct result, they are most likely going to want to take sides. They will feel, and in many cases, display anger towards one or both parents, as they often look for someone to blame when negative feelings arise.
For children, divorce is not just about people moving to different places; it is a period of time that is filled with strong emotions and major changes within their familial foundation. Divorce can launch children into the experience of living in two worlds when all they have ever known for their entire life is living in one.
Take extra time when explaining your situation with this age group, and try to put it into context when they react. They are at an age where they’re figuring out the world — keep in mind that they have challenging days just as you do.
Separation and divorce proceedings are notorious for creating chaos and conflict. However, the more you can put your children first —and leave the angst, ill-feelings, and hostility at the door — the better result will be for the long-term impact on your children.
Both separation and divorce with children are without question emotionally draining. However, a happy, stable life waits for you at the other side of it.
Once you have made the decision to get divorced, you and your spouse should make a plan together to sit down and explain to your children together what is going on. No matter how hostile the situation is, if it is at all possible, parents should tell their children together.
Telling your children about your impending divorce is one of the most important conversations you are going to have. It is something you are going to want to get right the first time.
Whatever way you go about the task of explaining divorce to your children, it is a moment they are most likely going to remember for the rest of their lives. Keep that in mind as you plan your approach. To you, it may be something you want to get out of the way quickly, but to them, it’s a foundational block in their future happiness and stability.
Tips for talking to your children about your impending separation or divorce
At the Divorce Support Collective, we understand that as parents, you don’t always know the right things to say, all the time. Many of us are parents too.
Considering that your own emotions will be running high, and there could be new financial issues to have to contend with, you will likely be in a thinly pulled and somewhat stressed position.
Your kids may already be acting out because of the changes to their home life. Keep in mind that the calmer and more understanding your approach, the better it will be for them in the long run.
Here are our best seven tips on speaking to your children about divorce, from our expert team of divorce coaches to you.
Always remember, that no matter what the situation, you should never “bad-mouth” the other parent in front of your children. Your children love each of you dearly and regardless of the situation, your feelings or your motivation for the divorce, you need to protect your children away from any negativity wherever you possibly can.
Say nice things about the other parent or say nothing at all. Be kinder and more gracious than you feel. One day, they will thank you for it.
Reassure your children that no matter how complicated the matter is, that you will always love and care for them the best you can, no matter what. It is so important to make them understand that although you can no longer be “life partners” with the other parent, you will always love them. Your children love your ex-partner and may not understand the situation fully. They need reassured that the breakdown of your marriage is completely separate from your love for them.
If there was wrongdoing in the relationship, do not point fingers or lay blame on your ex-partner. Children simply do not need to know the details of your relationship.
Be honest about what’s going to happen before anything begins to change. Explain that for their routines will stay as normal as possible, and remind them that each parent loves them implicitly and will work together to make sure they get to see each of you as much as they want.
Always try your best to impart to the children that this is not their fault.
Put them first by ensuring them consistency — this comes naturally to most parents. Even when you are facing this emotionally challenging period in your life, consider your children’s needs and feelings before your own. Right now, your child need a stable, level-headed parent and a home that feels secure and as near to normality as possible. Try your best to sustain some consistency by enforcing similar rules and expectations.
If they see your ex’s parents or relatives frequently, maintain these visits, no matter how hard they might be. Do the hard work to sort your emotions and put them first.
Assure the children that they’ll never be asked to take sides. As we mentioned earlier in this post, in older children want to understand why things happen, and may try to assign blame or figure out why their parents’ marriage didn’t last. As a parent, it is your responsibility to ensure that your children know that both you and your ex-partner love them no matter what, and you will never expect them to choose one of you or the other. It is paramount that your children understand that your adult issues have nothing to do with them. Children internalise everything; always be careful to think about what you say before you say it.
Be upfront and clear with them about future living arrangements. Let them know which parent is moving out, when this will take place, and how they will split their time between you going forward. It is important to have this all figured out in advance before you tell your children, so that you may explain what is happening with calmness and clarity. Be prepared to gently and thoughtfully answer their questions.
Stay calm, be rational, and do your best to address all of their concerns. They can sense hesitation or franticness, so slow down. Be gentle and clear.
As the divorce wears on and more conversations are needed, never use your children as a tool of communication or “go-between.” As we have already stated in this post, divorce and relationships are adult business and children should be left out of the equation whenever possible. Never use your children to pass messages along to your ex-partner — they understand more about manipulation and communication than you know.
No matter how toxic the situation becomes with your co-parent, it is crucial not to involve your child in the spouse-to-spouse communication process. Choose a healthy, direct approach to communicating with your ex instead.
Like their parents, most children are stressed by the separation and changes in their lives. However, with care and support, most children accept and adjust to the changes.
If you are struggling to know the right things to say to your children, hiring a divorce coach to work with you during these initial stages could help to give you the confidence and tools you need. We offer personal coaching and downloadable course help if you need it.