How to tell your kids about divorce

Jan 18, 20246 minutes read time

Key points:

  • It’s important that you and your child’s other parent tell them about the divorce together, if possible.
  • Offer plenty of reassurance to your child, make it clear the divorce is not their fault, and let them know what will happen next (as much as you can).
  • Children at different ages may react differently to news of divorce or separation. Be sure to adjust your approach to their stage of development.

When you’re going through a separation or divorce, telling the kids is one of the hardest things you’ll do. It’s news that will forever change their world. It’s also a conversation you can’t avoid.

While it won’t be easy, you’re not alone. We’re with you every step of the way with advice on what to say, how to say it and how to give your kids the reassurance they’ll need.

Family Man is expert-backed and 100% free.

Before you break the news…

Put some thought into how and when to tell your child. (This is no time for winging it.) Try to agree on a plan with your child’s other parent – this is something you need to do together, if possible.

Decide together what to say about the divorce

You might find it helpful to write out what you want to say ahead of time. This can help you avoid pointing fingers or arguing in front of the kids. Use “we” language to show them you’re still on the same team when it comes to taking care of them.

Some especially important things to say:

  • We will always love you and look after you.
  • We’re going to work together on the best way for both of us to take care of you.
  • You don’t have to choose between us. You can love us both, just like we both love you.

Choose a good time to talk to your kids

Decide together when is a good time to speak to your children. While there’s no good time to break news like this to a child, there are definitely some times to avoid:

  • Not right before school
  • Not as you’re heading out the door
  • Not right before bed
  • Not just before (or during) a major holiday

If possible, try telling your child on a weekend, when they have plenty of time to process their feelings – and when you’re both around to offer plenty of comfort and reassurance and answer any questions they may have.

Tell the kids together

You and your spouse may not be a couple anymore – you may not feel like being in the same room anymore. But you are still a parenting team. The more you can act like one, the better. Having this talk should be something you do together, to show your child that both of you are committed to their wellbeing.

What should you say to your kids about the divorce?

While nothing you will say can take away the pain or sadness your child may feel, there is plenty you can say to help them feel safe.

Reassure your kids that you love them

Divorce creates a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. But there’s one thing your child should never be unsure of: your love. Reassure them that both of you will always be there for them.

Remind them you’re still a family

You and your soon-to-be ex may not be a couple anymore, but you will always be your child’s parents. They need to know divorce doesn’t change that.

Make it clear they did nothing to cause the divorce

Younger children don’t have a clear understanding of cause and effect, and kids of any age are likely to blame themselves for their parents separating. Make sure your child knows the divorce isn’t their fault.

Explain why the divorce is happening

It’s ok to tell your child there’s been conflict between you and the other parent. You don’t need to go into detail, and you certainly shouldn’t air your conflict in front of them. Avoid blaming the other parent, and make sure your child knows it isn’t their problem to fix.

Tell them what to expect

For example, let your child know:

  • Which parent is moving out.
  • Where they’re going to live and who they’re going to live with.
  • When things will start changing (even if it’s just a rough timeline at this point).

It’s also wise to be honest about what you don’t know yet. For example, if you and the other parent don’t agree on custody, explain that the two of you are trying to figure out what will be best, and some other adults are going to help you with that. Be sure to emphasize that both of you want to be with them as much as possible.

What not to say to your kids about divorce

There are a few things you should not do in the  conversation with your child:

  • Don’t blame the other parent.
  • Don’t argue with your former partner in front of the kids.
  • Don’t be critical of the other parent.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep – for example, telling your child they’ll never have to move.
  • Don’t go into too much detail – stick to the basics. Remember, what most kids really want to know is how the divorce will affect them.
Child listening to parents argue

Talking to kids about divorce: an age-by-age guide

Your child’s developmental stage will be a factor in how they process the news of the divorce. While every child is different, there are some things to keep in mind for each stage.

Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5)

What you should know:

  • Don’t expect your child to understand what’s going on or why.
  • Their sole concern at this stage is typically, Who’s going to take care of me?

Talking to preschoolers about divorce:

  • Stick to the basics: who will be taking care of them, which parent is moving out and how often they’ll see each parent.
  • If they ask questions, keep your answers as short and simple as possible.

What to expect:

  • Children this young can’t express what they’re feeling yet. Don’t be surprized if they seem more attached, irritable or anxious than normal.
  • Some kids may regress a little – for example, wetting the bed or waking up in the middle of the night again.

How to be there for your preschooler:

  • Don’t let your situation disrupt the care they receive. Consistency is essential to helping them feel safe and secure.
  • The more you and your child’s other parent can work on your co-parenting skills, the better your preschooler will adapt to change.

School-age children (ages 6 to 11)

What you should know:

  • Your child is more aware of the world around them. There’s a good chance they understand the basics of divorce and may know someone whose parents have separated.
  • This doesn’t mean they can process the complexity of divorce. School-aged kids tend to think in simple terms: black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. As a result, they might look for someone to blame.

Talking to school-aged kids about divorce:

  • Check in regularly to see how your child is feeling, but tread carefully. For example, instead of asking if they’re mad about the divorce, try asking if they have any questions or if they want to talk about what they’re feeling. Make it an invitation, not an interrogation.
  • Your child may also want to explore divorce on their own. There are plenty of age-appropriate books that can help (more on that below).

What to expect:

  • Your child may seem more anxious or fearful than normal.
  • They might also feel pressure to “fix” things – either telling themselves it’s up to them to get their parents back together or that it’s their fault you separated in the first place.

How to be there for your school-aged child:

  • Make sure they understand there was nothing they did that led to the divorce, and that there is nothing they need to change.

Teenagers (ages 13 to 15)

What you should know:

  • Teenagers are able to handle more of the complexity of divorce. They’re more likely to understand that it isn’t usually a clear cut, good-guy-versus-bad-guy situation.
  • Your teen’s response may vary. They might want to unpack everything with you. Or they might prefer to confide in friends.

Talking to teenagers about divorce:

  • Keep an open line of communication with your teenager, but don’t force things.
  • Although they realise divorce is complicated, your teen may still blame themselves. Make sure they know nothing that happened between you and the other parent is their fault.
  • Regularly communicate that you love them and are there for them.

What to expect:

  • Expect your teenager to be angry and irritable at times.
  • Don’t be surprised if they withdraw. It doesn’t mean they don’t need you – and it certainly doesn’t mean you should withdraw in response.

How to be there for your teenager:

  • Watch for signs of emotional problems. If their anxiety seems severe, or if they’re withdrawing from friends or activities at school, help them get the emotional support they need from a counselor or therapist.
A dad hugs his child in a divorced family

What to do (and not do) after telling the kids about the divorce

What you do after breaking the news to your kids is just as important as what you say during the conversation. Here are four tips to remember:

Give them time to adjust

They’re likely to experience a rollercoaster of emotions: confusion, anger, withdrawal, sadness. Don’t underestimate the toll this can take on a child’s wellbeing. Other kids feel relief, especially if they’ve seen (or heard) their parents fighting a lot.

There’s nothing you need to “fix” for them. Allow your child to feel whatever they are feeling. Never try to tell them how they should feel, and don’t get defensive if they are hurt and angry.

Minimize conflict with the other parent

Make a commitment with each other that you will not fight in front of the children. If you are separated, limit your conversations at pickups and drop-offs to logistics. That’s never the time to discuss custody issues, co-parenting challenges, or other sensitive matters. Try to schedule regular conversations with your co-parent (ideally when your kids aren’t around) to help with communication and problem-solving.

Never put your child in the middle

Don’t use them as a messenger between you and the other parent. Avoid criticizing your ex in front of your child, no matter how hurt you feel.

Encourage – and expect – the same positive behavior from your child.

There’s evidence parents lower their expectations for their child’s behavior in the first 12 months after separation. This can have a harmful impact on their mental health. While it’s good to give your child time to adjust and be sensitive to their concerns, you should continue using positive behavior strategies to help them regulate their emotions and actions.

Children’s books about divorce

There are a number of books that can help your child understand the ins and outs of separation and divorce. While availability varies by country, here are some of the more frequently recommended books by age:

Ages 4+

  • Dinosaurs Divorce
  • I Don’t Want to Talk About It
  • My Family’s Changing

Ages 8+

  • What Can I do? A Book for Children of Divorce
  • Divorce is Not the End of the World
  • Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids

Remember: be kind to yourself

Divorce is hard on kids, no question. You might spend many sleepless nights wondering if they’ll be ok.

Know this: if you continue to show up for them, if you and your former partner agree to put their wellbeing ahead of any disputes between the two of you – yes, it will still be a difficult road for them. But they will have the love and support they need to walk it. Make sure you also look after yourself, and get the help and support that you may need during this difficult time.

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