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When should we tell our kids that we're getting a divorce?

Writer: Alan Ravitz, MD, MS

Q My husband and I have begun divorce mediation. He plans to continue living at home b/c of financial issues. We are putting our house up for sale in another month. When should we tell the children about divorce? Wait until he moves out? It's so stressful! The girls are ages, 12, 10 & 6.

Generally you want to tell your children about your decision to get a divorce sooner rather than later. You do not want to wait until your husband moves out. Kids are incredibly intuitive, so even though you think they might not know about this, they could already have an idea. And it is important for them to hear it from you, and not from anyone else. The sooner you talk about it, the better.

There are some exceptions to this rule. You shouldn’t tell your kids that you’re divorcing unless you are absolutely sure about the divorce. If you are still going to be living with each other for another year, then your kids might not need to know. But if the separation is going to occur within the next two or three months, or if the parenting plan (also known as a custody agreement) is going to go into effect, or someone is going to file within the next two or three months, then you should definitely discuss it.

Now, there are some things you should and shouldn’t do when you have this conversation. You should both be there when you tell the kids. You should try to have some idea of what the parenting plan will be, and you should share that with the kids in as straightforward a fashion as possible. You should be careful not to assign any blame. The divorce needs to be presented as a joint decision. It isn’t anyone’s fault—not mom’s or dad’s and certainly not the kids’. They need to know that both their parents love them and will continue to be available to them, and that they aren’t going to be placed in the middle so they won’t need to choose sides.

You should also be prepared for anger or sadness. Every kid will hear the news in a different way. You know their personalities and temperaments, so you should try to anticipate how each of your children is going to react, and you should come up with a strategy to deal with that reaction.

Don’t tell them around holidays or birthdays. Don’t tell them in a public place, or just before bedtime. If one of your kids lashes out against you or your husband, be prepared to stick up for each other. If one of your daughters says, “Oh dad, you’ve always been so mean,” be ready to disagree. Say, “Your dad always tries to be a good parent and he loves you.” This conversation also should not be an opportunity to make your argument. If you’re really intent on doing that, save it for the courtroom.

This article was last reviewed or updated on August 4, 2021.