Talking with Children About Divorce

When parents are divorcing, one of the most difficult, and, for the the vast majority of parents, the most difficult, is talking to their children about their divorce.

Research concerning the information communicated to a child shows:

  • 45% of children reported their parents had given them a simple, blunt statement that they were divorcing. Their parents did not give any additional information.
  • 32% of children stated their parents gave them some basic information about the divorce, but the parents didn’t allow children the opportunity to ask questions.
  • 5% of children felt their parents had given them full information and a chance to ask questions.

Additional research reports:

  • 23% of parents do not give children any information about their divorce.
  • 44% – Only the mother talked with the children about the divorce and gave them the information.
  • 17% – Both spoke with the children.
  • 8% – Only the father spoke with the children and gave information about the divorce.

The best way for parents to tell children about divorce is for both parents to talk with the children. Experts advise parents to “talk with” their children rather than “tell” their children. Parents should not argue when they talk with their children, and should not blame the other parent. When parents talk to the children separately (the mother at one time and the father at another time), the danger is that each parent often gives different information to the child which adds to the child’s confusion. Notice I wrote “adds to”, because even in the best of circumstances a child will most certainly feel confused.

What information should you give a child? The information you share should be appropriate to a child’s age. Use language that your child will understand.

The big “no” is to place blame on a parent. This is difficult for many parents, as it is most often the situation where one parent initiates the divorce.

Ideally, both parents will sit down with their children, and one parent says, “We have decided to divorce, and Daddy or Mommy (or I, depending on which parent is talking) will not move out.” In real life, this is a difficult conversation for the parent who does not want the divorce. In those situations, I encourage parents to say something along the lines of “Your mother (or father) and I have talked and tried to work on our marriage, but it is not working, and I need to be separate.”

The following are important:

  1. Love – “We both love you, and we will each continue to love you always.”
  2. Time with each parent – “You will have plenty of time with each of us.” Go ahead and tell them when they will be with each parent.
  3. Where they will live – Children are very worried about where they will live. If you know, tell them now. Younger kids (under 10 years old) do best with concrete answers. Older kids also benefit by knowing where they will live, but they can tolerate hearing that the parents have yet to work it out.
  4. Divorce is not the child’s fault – Emphasize this, especially if the parents have argued about the child’s behavior, or if the child has acted out or had problems in school or with substance abuse, etc., as these children often blame themselves for the divorce.
  5. Reasons for the divorce – Try not to blame the other parent. Instead, focus on: (a) We are or I am not happy with the marriage; (b) We want different things in our lives, such as (give examples);  (c) We can’t really talk to each other.
  6. Parents were in love when married; however adults may fall out of love. Be clear that parental love is different and that parental love is forever.
  7. When a spouse had or is having an affair, their spouse may want to be honest with their children and tell their children, but the spouse wanting honesty is forgetting parent/child boundaries. Children do not and should not be privy to adult sexual relationships.

Divorce is difficult for each family member, even the person who is initiating the divorce. Parents, the best thing you can do for your children is to act. Put on the best face you can and move on with your life. Your child will follow.

My goal for you is to dance with your ex-spouse at your child’s wedding.