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How to Talk to Your Children about Divorce

Children at varied developmental levels naturally have a different understanding of divorce, the reasons for it, and what the future will bring. Parents will therefore need to tailor discussions according to their children's maturity.

Parents of young children should maintain routines, provide consistency in rules and expectations, and provide extra affection. Provide young children with repeated reassurances that the divorce is not their fault and that you love them.

Teens will likely want more details about the divorce and how it will affect their lives. Parents of teens should have open, calm conversations; support their teen's emotional reactions; and continue to maintain high expectations for their behavior.

Keep Messaging Clear & Simple

For all kids, their parents' message should be clear and simple. It should leave out messy details that could lead children to believe that they need to fix the problem or that they are the cause of the divorce. Parents—ideally together—should explain in a calm tone something like, "We have decided that we can't live together anymore and do not want to stay married. This was not an easy decision, but it was an adult decision. It has absolutely nothing to do with you; we both totally love you." Children may have mixed feelings in reaction to the news.

It may be helpful to make the following points:

  • Mommy and Daddy will both be happier.

  • There will be two homes where you will be loved.

  • Each of us will continue to be an important part of your life.

  • It is important to listen and pay attention to your children's reactions.

For older children, this news may not come as a surprise. They may have friends with divorced parents. They may have worried that their parents would be next. For other children, the news may come as a shock. Regardless, children have many questions that they are afraid to ask. Some questions will be immediate; others will evolve over time. For this reason, it is important to give children repeated opportunities to ask questions and express their worries.

Make Sure Your Children Know They Are Safe

Children usually focus on whether they will remain secure and safe. Many children wonder how the divorce will change their day­to­day lives. Other major concerns may remain unspoken. Encourage children to be honest about their emotions and legitimize whatever they are feeling. Most children worry about whether they were responsible for the dissolution of their parents' marriage, but few find the nerve to ask directly.

Asked and unspoken questions should be addressed:

  • Was this my fault?

  • Could I have done anything to make you stick together?

  • How about now? If I promise to behave, will that make you get back together?

  • Will you still love me, even if you don't live with me?

  • How often will I get to see you?

  • Do I have to move?

  • Do I have to change schools?

  • Will we have enough money?

The keys to answering these questions are clarity, honesty, and reassurance that they will remain safe and loved. Be up front about what will change in their day­to­day lives and help to prepare them ahead of time for these changes. Change can be overwhelming and scary for children; it may take them time to come to terms with new living and custody arrangements. Try to minimize disruptions to their daily routines as much as possible. Offer them support in finding ways to cope with their feelings through artwork, talking to a friend, or running it out through exercise. Whatever arrangement you choose, keep your children's needs first and continue to be involved in their lives as much as possible. Let your children know that despite the changes ahead, you hope the family will become happier and healthier.

Make Sure Your Children Know It's Not Their Fault

Children must know that there is absolutely nothing they have done that caused their parents to decide to split. It must be reinforced repeatedly that the decision to separate was an adult decision, based on adult problems. This may be a hard point to convey convincingly if child­rearing issues were often a point of contention. Nevertheless, it is a vital point to make. Children also must know that the problem is between their parents and that it's not theirs to fix. Children will do best if they know that their parents will continue be there for them even though they won't live together anymore.

Additional Information & Resources:

Last Updated
Adapted from Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings, 3rd Edition (Copyright © 2015 Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP, and Martha M. Jablow)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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