Breaking the News: Talking to Children About Divorce

For children, separation and divorce can be challenging and navigating divorce conversations with children requires sensitivity. Learn effective strategies to communicate this significant change to your kids.

By URLife Team
29 Feb 2024

Deciding to get divorced is a daunting and an emotionally raw experience. It becomes more intense when children are involved. For many parents, informing children about a divorce can be one of the most challenging aspects of the entire divorce procedure. Children seek security from their parents, and a divorce naturally alters the foundation a child relies on for stability. However, it is a crucial conversation as it provides parents with an opportunity to establish the foundation for a healthy new beginning for the entire family.


Divorce not only affects the relationship between spouses but also has profound and often unseen impacts on children. For many kids, divorce can feel like an intense loss—the loss of a parent, the loss of the family unit, or simply the loss of the life they knew. It shouldn’t surprise you as a parent if your child exhibits signs of insecurity, regression, increased mischievousness, uncooperativeness, or clinginess, and seeks attention from you and others during this challenging period. Even in the most amicable separations, the significant change can be earth-shattering for any child.


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Also, informing your child about the breakup of the marriage becomes especially challenging as you navigate your own mix of emotions, including regret, failure, uncertainty, relief, or sadness.


As per psychologist Anthony Wolf in his book "Why Did You Have to Get a Divorce and When Can I Get a Hamster?", the major divorce issues are change and loss, and kids find both to be very scary. Some kids will be openly sad or angry, while others may deny they have any feelings at all about it.


According to a 2023 research by the American Association for Marriage amd Family Therapy, although each child's adjustment to divorce varies, the majority successfully navigate these changes, growing up to become well-adjusted adults. However, around 25 per cent of children with divorced parents encounter persistent emotional and behavioural challenges, a higher percentage compared to the 10 per cent of children whose parents remain married.


Although there's no perfect way to share this likely devastating news, certain approaches are more effective than others. Research shows that conveying this news in a straightforward and child-centred manner can help to ease the blow.


Keep reading to know more about how to announce a divorce or separation and what to consider for your children’s well-being.


Related Post: I was Worried my Child Would Inherit my Anxiety—What Happened Next was Surprising to say the Least


Plan What to Say 

Consider spending some time reflecting on how you'll explain the divorce to your kids and anticipating their potential reactions. Discuss with your partner beforehand to align on what you'll communicate and how you'll address various details. Having well-thought-out talking points can assist you in delivering the news confidently and straightforwardly, especially during emotionally charged moments. This preparation can help you avoid becoming overwhelmed or reactive, ensuring a more composed and supportive interaction with your children.


Break The News As a Unit

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the most ideal way to inform children about divorce is when both the parents are together. It would be helpful for both parents to come together and deliver this news jointly.  Presenting a united front can be comforting and reassuring for the child. This ensures that the child receives a cohesive understanding of the divorce, avoiding conflicting perspectives.


Ideally, discussing and agreeing on key points beforehand is advisable, but certain situations, such as mental health concerns or abuse, may make it unsafe or impractical for both parents to be present. In such cases, it's essential to inform the child straightforwardly. If there's significant tension between parents, seeking guidance from a therapist before having the conversation can be helpful in determining the best approach.


Avoid the Blame Game

No matter how upset or angry you may feel, refrain from blaming your spouse for the breakup and avoid arguments in front of your child. Keep any details about extramarital affairs or financial issues to yourself. Sharing negative details about your spouse's behaviour can be perceived as a betrayal by the child and may lead them to internalise criticism. For instance, if negative labels are used, like calling Mom a "liar" or "cheat," children may see themselves as half the product of Mom, thus feeling like half a liar or cheat. It's crucial to remember that children are connected to both parents, and what you say about the other will impact how they perceive themselves.


Reassure Your Child

Children might internalise blame for the divorce, even if they don't express it. They could mistakenly think their actions, like not cleaning their room or struggling in school, caused the breakup. It's crucial to explicitly convey to them that the divorce is an adult decision and is unrelated to anything they have done. As a parent you could say, "Sometimes things happen with mommies and daddies. We're really sorry that it happened, but it's not anything you've done." This reassures the child that they are not at fault for the changes in the family.


Don’t Try Coach Your Child

Avoid coaching your child on what to say, especially in the context of a custody evaluation. It's essential to allow your child to express their thoughts and feelings authentically without imposing your perspectives. Coaching may unintentionally put pressure on the child to align their statements with your expectations. This can  potentially compromise the integrity of the evaluation process. Instead, create an open environment where your child feels comfortable sharing their experiences and emotions without external influence.


Additionally, refraining from coaching ensures that the mental health professional receives genuine insights into the child's well-being and family dynamics, contributing to a more accurate and helpful evaluation.


Related Post: Does Your Child Have Separation Anxiety?


Don’t Make Your Child Pick Sides

Avoid turning your child into a spy. After a visit, resist the urge to question your child about the other parent's actions or words. Despite any curiosity you may have, it's essential not to try to make your child a confidant by seeking information that puts them in a difficult position. Allow your child to share their experiences voluntarily and maintain a healthy boundary that protects them from feeling caught in the middle of any potential conflicts.


Consider Seeing a Family Therapist

If you lack confidence in breaking the news to your child about a significant family transition, or if you need assistance navigating through the changes, consider seeking the guidance of a family therapist. A family therapist can provide valuable support in facilitating conversations, addressing concerns, and helping both you and your child cope with the transition. Their expertise can contribute to a smoother and more understanding process, fostering open communication and emotional well-being during this challenging time.


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Approaching the task of telling children about divorce with empathy and thoughtful communication is crucial. By employing effective strategies, parents can provide support, clarity, and reassurance, facilitating a healthier emotional journey for their children during this challenging process.


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