No part of a marital split is fun, but one of the most difficult steps is telling your kids that you and your spouse are getting divorced or separated. No parent wants to cause their children pain or to break up a family. However, informing your children about your divorce has to be done. Keep in mind that this conversation will likely be a “flashbulb memory,” or a memory your kids will hold onto forever.
The way you tell your children about divorce will also set the foundation for the entire process. While you can’t make this painful conversation easy, you can avoid making it unnecessarily difficult or upsetting.
In this article, we’ll review how to tell kids about divorce. We’ll discuss some steps you can take to prepare for this conversation, what to expect from your children, and how to lay a positive groundwork for the future. There is no right way to tell your kids you’re getting a divorce, but there are certainly worse ways than others.
Speak to Your Children as a Team
You and your spouse probably aren’t on the best of terms if you’ve decided to divorce (or separate). One or both of you may feel angry, betrayed, frustrated, or worse. Still, if at all possible, you’ll want to tell your kids about the divorce together.
It’s important to provide a united front and to show your children that you are both on the same page (even if this isn’t completely true on the inside). No matter how you feel, do your best to put your own emotions aside so that you can help your children through this difficult process.
It’s not always possible to tell your children about divorce as a team. If one spouse is in denial or if you are concerned for your safety, you may have to break the news alone.
Prepare for the Conversation
Work with your spouse to prepare for the difficult conversation when you tell your children about the divorce. Determine what you do want to share and what you would like to keep private. If you’ve figured out important things like who is going to keep the house, whether the children will be moving to a different school, and how custody will be divided, determine how you want to explain this to your children.
Try to anticipate questions your children might ask and how you feel comfortable answering. If any topics are off-limits, make sure both spouses agree.
Choose the Right Time and Place
Work with your spouse to choose a specific time and place for the conversation. This isn’t something you just want to blurt out over dinner when feelings are still raw. At the same time, resist the temptation to wait too long. You don’t want your children to hear about your divorce from someone else. You probably already know that children of any age can be incredibly astute. Chances are they already know there’s trouble at home.
If possible, tell your children at home where they feel comfortable. It’s usually best to tell all your children together so that younger siblings don’t hear the news from older siblings. If your children are far apart in age, give the news in a way your younger children can understand. You can always have a second, separate conversation with older children where you provide more detail.
Choose the right time to tell your children. Try to avoid holidays or vacations so that your children won’t equate happy times with sad news. Try not to tell them right before school or right before bed. You want to give them time to process the information with you or on their own according to their preference. A weekend can be a good time to have the conversation.
Explain the Divorce in a Way That Is Age Appropriate
The actual words you use when telling your children that you’re getting a divorce will depend a great deal on the age of your children, the circumstances of your family, and what you and your spouse feel comfortable sharing.
What you do say should be appropriate for the ages of your children as well as their emotional developmental level. Keep things simple for younger children. You can say, “Mommy and I still love each other but we decided that we can’t live together anymore.” Or “Daddy and I will still be friends but we’ll live in two separate houses from now on.” If they ask why you’re getting a divorce, you don’t need to go into a lot of detail. It can be enough for now to simply say, “This is an adult decision between us.)
Older children will want more details. Be truthful but you don’t need to share everything. It’s okay to say things like, “You’ve probably noticed that we’ve been fighting. We’ve tried really hard to be married but we weren’t able to make it work.”
Don’t Attack or Blame Your Spouse
No matter how angry or betrayed you feel inside, don’t attack or blame your spouse when you tell your kids that you’re getting a divorce. Remember, your spouse is their father or mother. Don’t put your children in the middle of your fight by telling them that daddy wants to leave or that mommy cheated. Keep the dirty details and the negative emotions between you and your spouse.
The greatest gift you can give your children through this difficult time is permission to still love both of their parents without any emotional baggage or negative feelings toward one parent.
Say “We Love You”
More than anything else, your children will need reassurance during this conversation. The divorce will change their lives forever. Make sure they know that the one thing that will never change is how much you both love them.
Tell your children clearly and repeatedly that the divorce is not their fault. They did not cause it, and they could not have prevented it. Tell them that no matter what happens or what changes, you will never stop loving them. Knowing they are loved will help children feel a sense of security even as their lives change in a big way.
Discuss the Big Things That Will Change
You don’t need to overload your children with too many details when you first break the news of your divorce. However, they will want to know about the big changes in their lives. Be prepared to tell them as much as you can. Some of the important things to discuss are
- If one parent will moving out of the house
- Whether the children will be staying in the house or moving out of the house
- Whether the children will stay in the same school
- Whether children will still get to stay in sports/art/other classes or lesson
- Whether grandparents or other family members will be moving in
- Which parent the children will be living with or how much time the children will be spending with both parents
- Any changes to future events, like an upcoming vacation or holiday
If both parents will have some amount of child custody, reassure your children that they will get to spend quality time with both parents.
Stay Away from Certain Topics
As mentioned, you don’t need to go into detail about all the reasons for your divorce. Your children don’t need to know about intimate details of your relationship or everything that went into your decision to divorce. Don’t throw other family members under the bus, either. Be respectful to everyone in the family.
Stay away from financial issues unless older children specifically ask about them. You can let younger kids know that things will be different, but they don’t need to worry about bills or what you can or cannot afford. Complicated issues like childcare schedules or who will parent during what vacation might not need to be discussed in this particular conversation.
Finally, steer clear of discussing things you’re still fighting about. You can let your children know that you haven’t figured out living arrangements yet but you don’t need to tell them that you’re fighting in court over custody, alimony, child support, or any of those negative details.
Be Honest If You Don’t Know
You may not know all the answers to the questions your children have, and that’s okay. Perhaps you haven’t figured out who will move out of the house or even if one parent will keep the house. Maybe you and your spouse are fighting over a custody arrangement. Without getting negative or tearing down your spouse, be as honest as you can with your children.
You can say things like, “We don’t know if we’ll stay in this house, yet, but we’ll let you know as soon as we can.” Or try, “We both want to be part of your lives, be we haven’t decided exactly how much time you’ll spend with each of us. We’re going to work it out between ourselves and will get back to you.”
Listen to Your Children
Support your children by helping them express emotions, and commit to truly listening to these feelings without getting defensive. Provide reassurance—calming fears, clearing up misunderstandings, and showing your unconditional love.
Rather than trying to give your kids a lot of information, give them space to process, and allow them to guide the conversation with their questions.
Help Your Children Express Their Feelings
For kids, a conversation about divorce may come as a complete shock or could be the thing they’ve secretly been dreading for a long time. It can feel like loss: the loss of a parent and the loss of the life they know. You can help your children grieve and adjust to this difficult time by supporting their feelings.
You can also encourage them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk. If they don’t want to talk, that’s okay, too.
Accept and Acknowledge Any Reaction Your Children Have
Let your children know that there is no right or wrong way to feel about the divorce. Accept and support any reactions your children have. They may be angry, sad, or blame one parent over the other. Some children may clam up or have no reaction at all. Others may actually be relieved if you and your spouse have been fighting for a while. All of it is normal.
Many children need time to really process the idea of parents getting divorced. They may react well in the moment but then have emotional outbursts later. Try not to take their anger personally. Your children are hurting and confused, just like you are.
Also, don’t be surprised if your children have different reactions. Each child is a unique individual and will process the news in their own way.
Offer Follow Up Conversations
It’s completely normal if your children don’t know how to respond to the news of your divorce. They may not show strong feelings initially or may not have lots of questions now. They may even want to end the conversation as soon as possible. Don’t force them to talk about their feelings or keep them in the room. Instead, let them know that you are both available if and when they want to talk more. This process will likely include many ongoing conversations. Let them guide you.
Future conversations can delve into more detail, such as which parts of your child’s normal routine will change or what their new regular routines might look like.
Work with a Family Therapist
If you aren’t sure how to tell your children you’re getting a divorce, consider working with a family therapist with experience in divorce. Your therapist can give you guidance customized to your particular situation, your family dynamic, and the personalities and ages of your children.
If your children are struggling with the news, you may want to consider putting them into therapy. Your child may not feel comfortable discussing their feelings with you. Instead, therapy may be a safe and supportive space where they can work through their emotions in a healthy and productive way. Again, the goal is simply to support your children as much as possible through this difficult process.
An alternative option is to work with a divorce coach who can give you guidance on supporting your children through divorce as well as help you with the overall process of divorce. Another option is hiring a child therapist who can work with young children.
Your Children Are Going to Be Okay
As a parent, you may agonize over how to tell your kids that you’re getting a divorce. You may worry that telling your children the wrong way could traumatize them forever. Let those fears go.
Children have a remarkable ability to heal when given the support and love they need. Your words, actions, and ability to remain consistent are all important tools to reassure your children of your unchanging love. Let your kids know that even though the physical circumstances of the family unit will change, they can continue to have healthy, loving relationships with both of their parents. Constant reassurance will give your children the sense of stability they need to adapt and thrive in their new reality.
Tell kids that things won’t always be easy, but that they will work out. And they will!
If you want to learn more about what to expect during a divorce, sign up for a local Second Saturday Divorce Workshop near you.
Children and Divorce FAQs
How do children commonly react when they learn about their parents getting divorced?
When children learn that their parents are getting divorced, they may feel overwhelmed. Common reactions can range from feelings of anger and sadness to confusion and guilt. Parents need to recognize these emotions and allow their kids to express themselves in a safe and healthy way.
Children may become defiant or withdrawn as they struggle to cope with the changes brought about by divorce. Be prepared for intense emotions or even difficult emotions like blaming or hating one or both parents.
Children may also become overly concerned with how their peers will react; this is especially true for older children. There is no wrong way for children to react to a divorce. Difficult emotions may simply be part of their process. Accept your child’s reaction and give them the space and support they need to process the experience in their own way.
When is the best time to tell children about a divorce?
There will never be a perfect time to tell children about your divorce. Instead, it’s better to focus on when not to tell them. You don’t want your kids to connect the divorce news to dates that are supposed to be happy. Try to avoid telling your children about your divorce around big holidays, birthdays, or vacations. If you can, don’t tell them right before school or bed time. You’ll want to allow time for them to ask questions and process the information before they have to be somewhere.
The weekends are often a better time to tell children about a divorce.
How do we tell young children under 6 that we’re getting divorced?
Telling young children under six about a divorce can be difficult. Young children and preschool-aged children may not have a clear understanding of divorce. It’s important to keep the conversation simple but honest. Start by letting them know that you and your spouse will no longer be living together. Explain to them that this isn’t their fault and that you both still love them very much. Let them know that even though there will be changes, you are both still in their life and always will be. Then give them time to process what you’ve told them and answer any questions they have.
How do we tell children 7 to 12 that we’re getting divorced?
Children between 7 and 12 have a limited but growing concept of divorce. Before sitting down to tell children this age about your divorce, do some extra preparation. They may want to know how their daily routines will change or what their daily life will look like. Be prepared to answer these questions the best you can.
Children this age may also be liable to blame one parent for the split or even hope for reconciliation. Even if both spouses aren’t on the same page, it’s important to present a united front. Let children know that the divorce is a joint decision. Don’t tear down the other parent. At this age, children need support, love, and connection from both parents as much as possible. Don’t plant seeds for parental resentment. It won’t help anybody.
If they keep asking why you are getting divorced, you might just have to say that adult relationships are complicated and leave it at that. Fortunately, the parent-child relationship isn’t complicated. Again, tell them that your love for your children will never change.
Be patient and understanding. Speak to your child’s level of understanding. Answer questions truthfully but also in an age-appropriate manner so that your child doesn’t have misconceptions about the situation.
How do we tell teenagers that we’re getting divorced?
Even young teenagers have a good understanding of divorce and your children will likely know friends with divorced parents. Honesty and directness often work best with teens. While you don’t need to go into dirty details of why your relationship didn’t work, you can speak plainly to your teens. They’ve probably noticed tension in the household and may not be surprised when you bring up the subject of divorce.
The way you approach this conversation with your teen will depend on your unique family dynamic, your teen’s emotional maturity, and what you and your spouse feel comfortable with.
Many teens will want details about what will change moving forward. Their social life is very important to them at this age, so they will likely want to know if they will stay in the house, if they will attend the same school, and how much time they will live with each parent. If you can answer these questions, do so or let them know that you are working on these issues.
Teenagers have very complex emotional lives, so they may respond in a variety of different ways. Offer support and acceptance of any way they choose to process the information. Answer their questions as openly and honestly as you can. If your teen is struggling with the news or facing other emotional challenges, you may want to consider hiring a therapist. It may also be helpful to let their teachers and coaches know about the impending divorce so that your teen can receive extra support outside the house.