how to tell kids about divorce

The odds are almost even for your marriage to end in divorce, since it happens in 40% to 50% of all first marriages, with the divorce rate on remarriages even higher. Unfortunately, many marriages ending in divorce involve children; often, the parents try everything (couples counseling, individual therapy, even trial separations) before facing the fact that the marriage has failed and divorce is the logical direction to take. However, if you think making the divorce decision was tough, now is time to figure out how to tell kids about divorce and how it will impact their lives. It is not necessarily difficult, but learning how to tell kids about divorce in the most positive manner is possible. Like everything else, it takes time and sensitivity to address this issue, but when approached with a positive attitude, you may be amazed at how well your kids manage this news.

The Age Factor

The ages of the children involved during the divorce of their parents will play a major role in determining how best to address this reality with them. Younger children require simpler explanations while older children may want to know specific reasons why the parents they love will no longer share the same home. Some children will even begin to blame themselves for the marital dissolution.

In all situations, it is crucial you remain sensitive to their needs and emotions. It is a rough time for all family members, especially the children who feel as if they have no control over the matter. While certain aspects of a divorce are beyond their control, affirming your love towards them and your commitment to care for them should be constant and authentic.

Infants and Toddlers (Up to Age 5)

Children under the age of 5 are highly dependent upon their parents, with an extremely limited capacity to grasp complex or abstract situations (“Daddy is moving to a new home” may be interpreted as everyone is moving). Their sense of reality is barely forming, they are aware of their feelings but have difficulties expressing them, and have a very dim concept of the future.

It is still quite easy for the child to view the absentee parent as having left them, not their spouse. Because this age group is strictly limited to social interactions within the family circle (they don’t have friends to “hang” with), these little ones may be more sensitive to oppressive atmospheres and unresolved tensions.

Instead of one “big” talk, plan on a simple explanation of the logistics (who is moving out, how often each parent will see them) and emphasize that little will change for them. Then prepare for ongoing conversations, many of them simply short reminders of their new family life structure. Most of all, let them know they are loved and will be cared for during the transitional period and beyond.

Young Children (Age 6 to 11)

Between the ages of 6 and 11, children are beginning to develop outside relationships (with neighbors, classmates, and other external social interactions), have a slightly less egocentric view of their world, and are becoming more capable of discussing their feelings. However, even while being less self-centered, this age group has a greater likelihood of blaming themselves for the failure of their parents’ marriage.

It is not uncommon for children in this age group to express their confusion and distress through more negative reactions, such as anger, sadness, fear, or even anxiety. They can also develop a fantasy that they can bring their parents back together to heal the marriage; such thoughts inhibit the healing process through which they must go.

Kids closer to age 11 may find outside resources, such as counseling or books on kids whose parents have divorced, helpful in reconciling this painful reality. While the first talk about divorce is important, prepare for follow up conversations that will arise as your children in this age group have more time to sort out their feelings and questions.

Older Children (Age 12 to 17)

From ages 12 and upwards, your children have developed a sense of maturity which equips them to better converse with you about the marital breakup. You will find them more likely to engage in real conversation about the divorce, asking questions designed to increase their understanding and awareness of this overall picture. However, at this stage of their life, they may also be questioning parental authority and are forming stronger relationships outside the family circle.

While less likely to self-blame for your divorce, it is just as important at this age group to emphasize they are not the reason for the breaking up of the marriage. Since this is also a common age for rebellious behavior, extra vigilance should be taken during the early stage of divorce to ensure that using the divorce as excuses for unacceptable actions is minimized.

Offering outside support in the form of counseling can help your older children balance out the facts of the divorce from their fantasized ideas of how to fix that broken marriage. Most important is to deepen your already strong relationship with these maturer children and to affirm that your love for them is not at all diminished, even if you are facing your own difficulties during the transition.

The “Big” Talk

If you have children ranging between the three age groups described above, you may choose to hold separate conversations with each age group. If this is the case, it is better to begin with the older children. This gives them time to digest the information; they can also play important roles as additional support for younger children (without imposing the responsibility of caring for them in replacement of an absent parent).

It is an important conversation you must have with your children, so when deciding how to tell your kids about the divorce, it is important to take time in preparing for it. In particular, factor in the following ideas:

  • Do It Together – unless absolutely impossible, this is a conversation in which both parents must participate and attend; not only does this eliminate the fear that one parent will “bad talk” the other parent, but it tells the children you both care enough about them to do this together
  • Write It Out – very few people thrive in impromptu performances; for this situation in particular, it is important you script out what you will say, recognizing that you will “wing it” when it comes to the real thing (but at least you both will be prepared)
  • Schedule the Talk – this is not an offhand “Oh, by the way…” conversation that is tossed out while dropping the kids off at school; schedule more time than you think it will take, which gives your children time to think, ask, and perhaps cry and get hugs from both of you
  • See With Their Eyes – try to gain their perspective on this revelation; remember, you two have had time to plan and prepare for this, but for the children, it’s a shock, maybe even a trauma – seeing it from their point of view can give you more empathy and understanding
  • It’s the First Talk – you two have had multiple conversations on your marriage before coming to this point; grant your children the same opportunity to talk and ask as often as they need, with later talks building from the earlier conversations you held with them
  • Keep Life the Same – this is a big change, so keeping the remainder of their lives (school, after school activities, hanging with friends, music lessons, etc.) familiar can help them integrate this change and give them “comfort” zones which haven’t changed
  • Be Honest and Ethical – do not lose the respect of your children through lying or using your children to send messages back and forth between parents; if the other parent does send a message through them, break the habit by contacting them back directly
  • You’re Not Alone – you are not the first, nor the last, parent learning how to tell kids about divorce; you can’t “blow” it but if you are feeling lost, get help and make sure your kids have an equally strong support system (family, neighbors, friends, educators, etc.)

Let us emphasize that you truly are not alone when figuring out how to tell kids about divorce. At Florida Law Advisers, you not only receive the highest quality legal support, but you also will work with empathetic professionals who can understand and support you through this stage of life. Contact us today so we can begin our big talk with you about this important point in your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get full custody in a divorce case?
Will I have to attend a parenting class?
Can I move with the children?
What if a child does not want to see the parent?