How to Talk to Kids About Divorce

Behavior and Discipline, Featured Article, Growth and Development

There is a divorce every 13 seconds in the United States. That adds up to more than 6,000 divorces a day, according to this divorce infographic. With nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce, there are a lot of children out there dealing with the fallout, says licensed therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women.

Nothing about a divorce is ever going to be easy, but there are ways to talk about it that will help kids understand how it will affect them, that will keep communication channels open in the future, and that will ease their pain. Here are a few to get you started:

Where and How to Tell Them
Research suggests that how and when children are told about divorce can have a significant impact on their adjustment. “That experience of finding out about a separation or divorce is often imprinted on a child’s memory like a trauma,” says Hanks. To make the experience less traumatic, Hanks has the following suggestions:

  • Present a united front. “Both parents should be there and present a unified message without placing blame.” she says. “This is often extremely hard to do, but important.”
  • Talk to the kids together. If there is more than one child, it’s better to tell them together to avoid burdening one child. “The siblings can support each other if they’re together,” says Hanks.
  • Choose neutral ground. Some experts think a neutral location—not at home—is the best place to break the news, Hanks says. Make sure the location is private so that the kids can be as sad or as mad as they need to be, without embarrassment.

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Five Main Things Parents Must Make Clear to Their Children

  1. The divorce is not the child’s fault.
  2. Mom and Dad (or whatever parental configuration) are not getting back together and will live separately.
  3. The children are still loved by both parents and will always be loved.
  4. The children can still love both parents and don’t have to choose between them.
  5. All the children’s feelings about the divorce—anger, sadness, fear—are valid. “Parents must make it clear to the kids that it is OK to feel whatever they are feeling,” Hanks says.

Age-by-Age Advice
No matter the age of the child, both parents need to express love for the child, validate all feelings and responses, and watch for behavioral signs that might indicate their child is feeling something that they can’t express verbally, Hanks says. If it seems like a child is bottling up his or her feelings and is acting out—and talking isn’t helping—it may be beneficial to talk to a therapist.

There are some age-specific concerns that children may have about the divorce. “Think of talking to them in terms of a staircase; with younger children you will start on the first step,” Hanks says. “The older the child, the more stairs they can climb in terms of ability to understand and process more information.”

For each of the following stages, information from the earlier stage is also shared and built upon.

  • Toddlers — Tell the child in very simple terms that you aren’t going to be married anymore and will be living separately, says Hanks. Give them lots of hugs, attention and time with both parents.
  • Preschooler/Early Elementary — Reinforce the notion that the divorce is not the child’s fault. “At this age, it’s also important to carefully explain how their schedules will change,” says Hanks. Knowing who they’ll be staying with and what the “new normal” is will provide much-needed comfort and routine. There are many excellent picture books covering the subject of divorce that are appropriate for this age group, she says.
  • Tweens/Teens — In addition to the steps above, older kids are more likely to struggle with how to integrate the changes that divorce will bring into their own lives, Hanks says. “The older the child, the more important it is to keep communication open,” she says. Even though these kids are older, though, the conversations should still be rated G; intimate details don’t need to be shared.

Discussing divorce isn’t just something you talk to the children about one, no matter what their age, Hanks says. “Parents should think of this as an unfolding of understanding and questions over the years as the child grows,” she says. “This is not a one-time conversation!”

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