Explaining divorce to your children can be one of the hardest and most misunderstood parts of the divorce process. Parents dread the conversation, and often have difficulty find the right words to say, or the level of honesty to share. However, how parents explain divorce to children can set the tone for the entire divorce process and make a game-changing difference in how children process divorce in the healthiest way. The initial conversation with children is an opportunity to begin helping children feel safe, secure, and loved at a time when they need it most.
Regardless of your children’s age remember a few things to help guide you through the challenge of talking with your kids:
Place yourself in your children’s shoes
How, where, when, and what would you want to be told if you were in their place? Would you want to feel safe, and loved? Would you want to be in a comfortable place and be reassured that your family will get through the changes together? Your children will remember the details of the moments they learn about the divorce. They will recall the words you use, your tone and your body language. Research shows that children associate the memory with their feelings about the entire divorce.
Tell your children together, all at once
Parents should develop a mutual story about the divorce, both be together for the conversation, and tell all of their children at the same time. Delaying time between conversations with different children only places a burden on children to keep secrets. A mutual story that takes equal responsibility for the decision allows children to minimize guilt surrounding maintaining a positive relationship with both of you.
Allow children to express their feelings and pain
Parents instinctively want to make things better for their children and take away their pain. Some children may show signs of relief at the news of divorce because it signals a possible end to conflict between parents. However, it would be most common that children react in pain, grief, sadness, and even anger. Although their feelings may surprise you, and may shift over time, be sure to let them feel what they feel, and be there to listen, and comfort them.
The news that you are divorcing will affect a toddler and a pre-teen in very different ways. Parents who choose collaborative divorce and divorce mediation with a trained mediator, will have some guidance on how to handle the situation. The use of books and other tools to help everyone work through their feelings can also be extremely beneficial. Below are some tips about how to approach children depending on their age.
Explaining Divorce to Children at Different Age Levels
Regardless of age, parents should do their best to reassure children that their feelings are valid and you are both united as parents, though you will no longer be married. Make an extra effort to let them know that they are loved and you are always there to listen to them and honestly answer their questions.
Children 0 to 5 years
- Babies and toddlers
- Unable to understand complex situations
- Dependent on parents
- Cannot express feelings easily
- Dependent on parents
- Beginning to develop independence
- Limited ability to understand complex situations
- Often unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality
- May not understand their own feelings
For babies and young children, simple explanations are best and it may take some time before they realize what divorce means. To them, sharing time between parents may be difficult to understand and they may continue to look for the absent parent for some time. As time goes on, they will slowly learn that they have two separate homes. Do your best to reassure young children and be aware that they may continue to ask questions for some time.
Children 6 to 11 Years
- 6 to 8 years
- Better able to think about feelings
- Beginning to develop relationships outside the home
- 9 to 11 years
- Able to think deeper about, and communicate their feelings
- More relationships outside of home
- May assign blame for divorce
School aged children are able to understand that divorce means your marriage is ending. They may know friends with divorced parents and have an idea of what life will be like once you separate. They may also be dealing with a wide range of complex feelings like anger, sadness and guilt. They may also need reassurance that their actions did not cause the divorce. The best thing for parents to do in this situation is keep an open line of communication and reassure them that they are loved and their feelings matter.
Children 12 to 14
- Better able to understand issues related to divorce
- Able to discuss and question divorce
- More independent and may question authority
- Relationships outside of home increase in importance
For older children, divorce can be severely disruptive to an already confusing time in life. Speaking honestly and directly is the best way to discuss the divorce for children in this age group. Parents with older children should do their best to continue to answer questions and work together as effective co-parents when possible to give children a consistent message. Speaking negatively about the other parent to children of any age, or acting in ways that place blame on the other parent for the divorce is emotionally damaging for children and should be avoided regardless of a parent’s feelings about their spouse or former spouse.