How to Tell Kids You’re Getting a Divorce
Advice on what to say and how kids may react
For many parents telling kids about a divorce is one of the hardest parts of the entire divorce process. Children look to us for security, and a divorce inevitably shifts the family foundation a child has come to rely on. But it is also a very important conversation because it gives parents an opportunity to try to lay the groundwork for a healthy new start for the whole family.
Jamie Howard, PhD, a psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, describes learning about divorce as a “flashbulb memory” for kids: “It’s one of those moments kids will probably always remember.” You want to get it right, which means taking some time to plan out what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Here are some tips to get you started.
How to break the news
If possible, Dr. Howard recommends that both parents sit down together to calmly share the news of their divorce. To head off potential sources of conflict, both parents should agree ahead of time about what to say. This is a time when kids need to be reassured, and the best way to do that is to show your children that you are both still on the same team when it comes to parenting. “You want to model ‘We’ve got this’” says Dr. Howard. “Even if it’s not true, or even if only one parent has got this.”
If it just isn’t possible for both parents to be present for this conversation, Dr. Howard recommends that whichever parent is around the most should share the news.
Deciding what to say
What you say will depend on the age and maturity of your child. You don’t want to overwhelm children with details, and it is generally better to let them ask questions rather than try to give them a lot of information they aren’t ready for.
Kids sometimes wonder about when changes will be happening. Of course some divorces are very civil and quick, but others take a long time. “You want to give kids a little bit of a timeline,” says Dr. Howard. “Maybe you could say something like, ‘We are separated now with the intention of divorcing. It may take some time to work out the details, but for now, just think of us as divorced.” If you do already have some idea of what the transition will look like, it may be reassuring for children to hear some of the details.
If there’s a custody disagreement, Dr. Howard suggests a child-friendly way to explain this might be to say something like, “We both love you so much and want to be around you. We’re trying to figure out what we think is best for you. We don’t agree on that, but we’re going to figure it out as adults, with other adults weighing in.”
A good rule of thumb is to avoid discussing financial settlements with children or sharing any information that makes one spouse look bad. You want to avoid any unnecessary conflict as much as possible to try to preserve a healthy parent-child relationship, which is very important for kids’ wellbeing.
If there has already been a lot of parental conflict and anger in the house that your child may have witnessed, Dr. Howard suggests you might explain it this way:
“You may have noticed there’s been more arguments. Sometimes we feel really angry. Just so you know, one of us might be saying things because we’re angry about the situation, but no one’s mad at you. These situations are complicated and we’re going to figure it out amongst ourselves. It’s not your job to fix anger. There are other adults that can help with the anger. There’s lawyers, there’s judges, there’s therapists. It’s not your job to help.”
How kids may react
Kids can react in many different ways to a divorce announcement. If there has been a lot of fighting in the home, some kids may actually feel relieved to hear about a divorce. But it is more common for kids to feel upset or even guilty. However your kids react, it is important to listen to them and take their concerns seriously, while making it clear that the divorce is not their fault, and that as parents you will do your best to help them feel secure and loved.
Children often start worrying about what the future will look like. Teenagers may sometimes fast forward to worrying about parents getting remarried. If this comes up, Dr. Howard advises saying something like, “Maybe, maybe not. Of course I want to be happy and that could be a part of my happiness. But you’re still my daughter and no one else is going to replace that.”
For worries that are more immediate, like who will take the child to soccer practice or what a new bedroom might look like, getting clear answers can be very reassuring. If you are still working the details out, tell your child that you are working on the answer to that, but you will let her know whenever you can. In the meantime you can look for other ways to help her feel secure, such as posting a provisional schedule in the kitchen. Our clinicians go into more detail about how to help kids feel supported during a divorce here, from how to listen to their worries to how to respond to anxiety, disruptive behavior and more.