How to Tell Your Kids About Your Divorce: Advice From a Child

Breaking news of your divorce to your children is not easy. Preparation is key. How you approach this conversation will depend on the age of your children. However, young or old, male or female, there are guidelines most couples can follow to help ease the stress for all involved.

I was 19 years old when I received the news that my parents were going to divorce. You may assume that at that age I could absorb that information with less difficulty, confusion, or frustration than a younger child, but that turned out not to be true. Age does not necessarily impact how one copes with the news of their parent’s divorce. Just because I was older does not mean that it was, in any way, easier for me. Yet, despite the challenges I faced attempting to accept what would soon become my “new and modified” version of family, there was one thing I really grew to appreciate and respect—the initial approach my parents took to inform me and my siblings of their divorce.

Discussing their divorce with us was, obviously, difficult for my parents. And their words were shocking to hear. Yet, they did it well. And here’s how:

Don’t place blame for your divorce on either party.

Kids don’t want to watch their parents bicker. They love, respect, and most importantly look up to you. So, speak as a team. It’s refreshing for your children to hear you speak well of one another. In contrast, it’s traumatizing to feel as though one parent is at fault for “ruining” the marriage. Reach an agreement, construct a story, and share it with your child(ren) together.

I appreciated my parents telling their story together. When they spoke, they began with “your mother and I,” or “your father and I feel as though…” That approach allowed me to accept that it wasn’t anyone’s fault (or at least that no one was actually being blamed).

Leave out details of your divorce that may upset your kids.

When talking to your children about something as serious as divorce, it’s important that you remain sensitive to how they may react. Although they may not cry and scream, internally they may be distraught. I know I sure was. Give them time to process and heal before loading them down with details that will confuse them.

There is a difference between telling your children about your divorce and spitting out details that portray your spouse in a negative light. Don’t put your children in an uncomfortable position by making them feel a need to pick sides.

Of course, children old enough to genuinely grasp the concept of divorce deserve at least a cursory explanation of the reason for their parent’s split. However, a delicate balance should be made when it comes to the details. Do not make your children feel uncomfortable by providing them with details that will not reassure or comfort them. Explain the basics, and leave it at that.

From my perspective, I was curious as to what caused my parent’s split. In no way did I see it coming. Because of that, I craved answers. I felt naïve that what I perceived as my “picture-perfect family” was, in fact, broken. However, there were still certain details I did not want to hear from my parents.

I remember when my best friend’s boyfriend broke up with her senior year of high school. She slept over every night for a week. We cried, we laughed, and by Friday, I knew all of the ins and out of their entire relationship. And, quite frankly, I developed a strong hatred for him because of how miserable he made someone I cherished feel.

That scenario is why I was afraid to ask my parents too many questions. I didn’t want a picture painted in my head that would make me develop negative feelings towards either of them. I just wanted to know when they made this decision, why it was made, and how our lives would change as a result.

So, when telling your children your story, remember that they are not your friend. Your kids cherish both of you. Protect your spouse’s reputation to the best of your ability. Your children will only ever have one mother and one father, and no matter the situation, it’s important to protect their love and respect for you both.

Reassure your children that things will be okay after the divorce.

After breaking the bad news, offer hope. “We are getting a divorce, but we do not hate one another.” “It will be difficult for a while, but with time, everything will be okay.”

Separate your kids from your divorce by reassuring them that it was not their fault. Only one thing could make receiving such news worse, and that is feeling as though they are the cause of it. Relieve them of that idea before it begins to develop. Kids don’t usually observe half of what is going on within their parent’s relationship. So, they tend to place blame on themselves for the things they do observe.

In my case, I was blind to the issues between my parents. They never fought or screamed, and they never displayed tension, at least in front of us. So, because I had never observed an issue, I began to form my own idea of the cause for their divorce. I remember reflecting on times when I had fought with both my parents at once and concluded that I had played a major role in their breakup. Of course, that wasn’t true, but before they got a chance to tell me differently, I was constructing a reason for their breakup in my head based on the things I actually witnessed. And I’m sure my brothers were doing the same.

It was a relief to hear both of my parents repeat that we were not a factor in their decision. Because, prior to that, I had already jumped to opposite conclusions.

Make it clear to your children that they played no role in your decision to divorce.

Listen to how your child feels about your divorce and offer support.

After you both get a chance to explain the situation, ask your children how they feel. Answer as many questions as possible. But, remember to answer from a mutual standpoint.

Following every point my parents made during our discussion, they asked for feedback. But they were also patient. They did not push us to describe our feelings. Rather they waited until we were comfortable enough to share our emotions ourselves. And when we did, they answered our questions and comforted us together.

Providing your kids with a gateway to receiving support can also help. Remind them you are always available to chat, propose the possibility of therapy, or suggest entertaining distractions to keep them preoccupied. That being said, remember that you can only offer support. And your kids may not want or accept your help. But don’t blame them. They’re still trying to figure out exactly what they need themselves.

Being at college during this transition made it harder for me to understand what things were like at home. However, my parents frequently reached out, even just to check in. Although I sometimes felt distant from my family’s situation and guilty that I was not always able to offer support of my own, it was a relief to know my parents were always just one call away—and they did a great job of reminding me of that.

Remember it is okay for both you and your children to be sad, mad, or confused. Just like how every divorce is different, every child will react in his or her own unique way.

Don’t make promises you cannot keep.

It is better to be uncertain of future circumstances than to make promises that fall short. Simply put, be realistic.

When my parents spoke of their divorce, I found immense comfort in the assurance they provided me and my brothers. They promised that we would not move. They promised our lives would not dramatically change. And they promised they would remain “friends.”

Now, it has been ten months since that discussion, and those initial promises have been bent, if not broken.

I know my parents may not have expected that things would change so dramatically. However, in my opinion, it was more damaging to cling to a fantasy only to later crash into reality. It’s like giving a kid a lollipop just to take it right back. I’d rather just never been handed the lollipop in the first place.

In no way do I fault my parents for the promises they made. I’m sure at that point in time they believed the same things themselves. However, it is crucial to enter this discussion with some type of plan. You don’t have to be certain about every factor of the future, however, a proposal for the next few steps will create a sense of peace.

Instead of stating, “We are not going to move,” try “we are going to do everything in our power to keep the house, but this is not definite.” Instead of saying, “We promise there are not going to be major changes in our lives,” try, “we will do our absolute best to keep our lives as similar as possible to how they are now. Things are going to be different, but that is okay.”

I know it may be difficult to restrict yourself from guaranteeing normality or providing your children with a set-in-stone answer to all of their concerns. However, until you are 100% positive of what is to come, equivocate. There is nothing wrong with some uncertainty. You can reassure without providing false hope. Embrace the inevitable, and your children will follow.

Finally, remain calm.

Your divorce will be overwhelming for you and your children. For that reason, it is so important that both parents remain calm. Showing anger or anxiety will cause your children to experience those same emotions. I know it may be hard to push everything you are feeling to the side; however, your confidence in the future will ease your children’s minds. Give yourself time to come to terms with the situation. Then, prepare a solid plan. That way, when the occasion approaches to share news of your divorce, you will be able to peacefully address it without causing chaos.

The takeaway.

There never really is a perfect time or approach to informing your children of such a big change. Although I am appreciative of my parent’s approach, it was still flawed. But that’s okay.

My parents, similar to most others, have experienced it all. They were prepared to get immediate help when my brother broke his arm after falling face-first from the zip line we had in our front yard. They offered advice after my brother explained his reasoning for sneaking out of our house one Saturday night at 2 am. My parents even comforted me when they received the call that I totaled their car a year after getting my license.

As a parent, there are so many things you can practice— you can practice your approach at caring for your child when they’re sick, or when they decide they don’t want to go to school for the third day in a row. You can even practice dealing with something as unnerving as your child sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night.

But, unfortunately, you can’t practice divorce. No one can.

So, take my advice. But with a grain of salt. No two situations are identical. Everyone has different ways of coping with difficult times and recovering from their aftermath. However, taking the proper steps to prepare for this delicate conversation may relieve you and your family of some additional anxiety and help to create a foundation for a positive future.

And always remember, whether they vocalize it or not, your children love you both, together or apart.