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Telling Children About Divorce

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When parents reach the difficult decision to divorce, they are faced with the emotional task of deciding on the best time and way of explaining the decision to their children. It is necessary to be open and honest with children, keeping in mind their ages and developmental levels. In all cases, children need to be reassured that they are not to blame for the divorce, will continue to maintain relationships with each of their parents, and, above all, they are loved.

Carefully Consider Timing

When a marriage breaks down, children may already have a sense that something is not right in their family. They have the right to know the situation as soon as practical, as it will result in changes in their lives that will require time for adjustment. However, the conversation should be carefully timed.

Delaying the conversation until some final decisions have been made regarding changes in living situations and parenting time will help parents deliver a clear message and answer questions. Also, it is in the children’s best interest for both parents to put their differences aside and choose a time to present the news together in a unified and supportive way.

What Should I Say?

In a divorce with minor childrenthere will be agreements made regarding custody, visitation and child support. It is necessary for the parents and their attorneys to come to decisions based on what is in the best interest of the children, but young children themselves should not be burdened with the specifics. Exceptions might be made in the case of older children who may be asked about their custody and visitation preferences by the court or a guardian ad litem.

Considering a child’s age and maturity is the first step in deciding how to explain divorce. The youngest children may not understand what divorce is, and parents will need to explain it in simple terms. Older children will likely understand the concept, or even know friends whose parents are divorced. In any case, parents should use language that is age-appropriate when explaining the changes that a divorce will bring about.

Behavior Changes are Normal

Understandably, children faced with the uncertainty of their parents’ divorce often exhibit behaviors as a result. Parents should be aware of these, and be supportive of their children through the divorce process. Common behavior changes differ by age:

  • Infants may exhibit clingy, irritable behavior or have a tendency to regress. Though very young, babies can sense tension between parents, but are unable to understand the reason.
  • Toddlers have formed a strong bond and attachment to their parents and the security that they provide. Changes in their lives are difficult to accept, and they may think that they are to blame. Attention seeking, trouble sleeping and fear of being alone are common.
  • Preschoolers have the capacity to understand a breakup, and may feel insecure, powerless or responsible. Due to their increased maturity, they may keep their feelings inside resulting in acting out or nightmares.
  • School-age kids can better understand the finality of divorce. They may make efforts to fix the marriage because they fear losing one of their parents. They may also blame one parent for the divorce.

Helping Children Cope

Parents play a critical role in easing their children’s fears and uncertainties during the transitions that take place in divorce. Even in good times, children thrive on predictability and consistency. Divorce will bring changes, and developing a routine benefits children of all ages and their parents as well.

Assuring that the children have adequate time with each parent, providing a safe environment open to discussion of feelings and opinions, allowing familiar objects to travel between homes, and providing increased emotional and physical comfort are all ways to help children feel more secure during a tumultuous time.

Many children benefit from discussing the situation with a third party. Asking another trusted family member, teacher or counselor to discuss feelings about the divorce with the children, and keeping the lines of communication open, may make a positive impact.

Divorce is a difficult transition, and this is especially true for children. Most decisions in a divorce regarding the children are made for them, and it may take time for them to understand and adjust to the changes in their lives. When parents work together to present the decision to divorce to their children in a positive way, the entire family benefits.

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