Divorce changes your family dynamics, but it doesn’t have to change how loved and supported your kids feel. Focus on empathy and reassurance as you share the news to help your child cope with the transition. Be sensitive to their age, development, and unique emotional needs. Here are some tips for how to tell your child you’re getting divorced. Many of these are similar to conversations about separation.
1. Get on the same page
No matter the tension between you and your spouse, it’s important to be a united front with your children. Agree on an explanation for the divorce before talking with your kids. Keep your reasons honest, simple, and age-appropriate. Be truthful, but spare your children from negative details. If you’re struggling to find common ground with your spouse in how you talk about this decision, simpler is better.
You might say something like, “Your mom and I haven’t been getting along for a while. We’ve decided to get a divorce, but we will both continue to love you and be your parents.” In some cases, children can blame themselves for the separation, so it’s important to be clear that the divorce is not their fault. Younger children may not understand what divorce means — explain it in terms that will make sense to them.
Pick a day that you’re both available to talk with the kids. Choose a time when the family won’t be rushed or exhausted, such as a Saturday morning.
2. Share the news gently
Your child’s world and perspective is closely tied to your current family structure. As you talk through the divorce, maintain a soft heart about where your child is at emotionally. The news might come as a shock to them. Take the conversation slowly and be ready to support your children’s feelings, whatever they may be. If things are getting emotional, plan a time to revisit the conversation.
3. Reassure them of your love
Remind your children that although you and your spouse don’t always get along, you never stop loving each other or them. Share ways that you and your spouse will continue to show your love, whether it’s snuggling up for bedtime stories or taking them to the zoo. When kids know that your love for them won’t change, they feel more safety and reassurance.
4. Discuss key changes, but limit the details
Describe the main changes to your little one’s daily and weekly life. Explain where each parent will live and when the children will see each parent. When children know what to expect, they feel more secure, especially during times of change.
There is no need to go over every detail right now, especially for younger children. Highlight the main points and answer any follow-up questions they have. If you don’t know an answer yet, explain that you’ll keep them up-to-date as decisions are made.
5. Avoid negative talk about your partner
Some (or a lot of) tension between spouses is typical during a divorce. But that doesn’t mean your children need to be in the middle of it. Avoid fighting or saying negative things about your partner in front of your kids. Conflict can cause stress and make kids feel like they have to “pick sides” or put down the other parent, which they don’t want to do.
6. Allow your kids to be kids
When children have to take on adult responsibilities and worries, it can hinder their personal and emotional development. Be the one to offer your children emotional support, and don’t expect it the other way around.
Avoid statements that put pressure or responsibility on your kids, such as, “You’ll need to take care of the house now.” or “It’s up to you to make sure your brother is OK.” Instead, let your kids know you’re always there for them, no matter what.
7. Show empathy
When kids have a safe place to talk through their emotions, they’re better able to cope with stress and life changes. No matter what they’re experiencing — anger, sadness, or confusion — be sure to validate their feelings.
You can offer empathy through statements like, “It’s OK to be angry. I’m here for you even when you feel frustrated or hurt.” and “This change must be really difficult. It’s hard for me too.”
By being there for your child, they’ll feel a sense of trust and safety. They’ll know they can keep coming to you for support, especially when they’re struggling.
7. Meet your child where they’re at
Children can experience a range of emotions when they hear about their parent’s divorce. Emotions will likely ebb and flow in the coming weeks. Try to take your child’s lead, listen and observe their emotions, and be there to support them each step of the way.
8. Call in the experts
If you notice more serious issues such as sleep problems, trouble at school, or social withdrawal, your child might need extra help. Consider engaging a child therapist, pediatrician, or school counselor to be a resource for your child during this time.
By helping your child process the divorce in a healthy way, you’re giving them lifelong resiliency and relationship skills.
- Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. The Whole-Brain Child. Random House, Inc. 2011. Print. https://www.wikihow.com/Tell-Your-Child-You-Are-Separating.
- Dona Matthews Ph.D.”How to Tell Your Child You Are Splitting Up.” Psychology Today. May 18, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/going-beyond-intelligence/201905/how-tell-your-child-you-are-splitting.
- Gina Kemp, M.A., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. “Children and Divorce.” HelpGuide. November 2020. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/children-and-divorce.htm.
- “Traps Divorced or Separating Parents Should Avoid.” Healthy Children. American Association of Pediatrics. September 11, 2014. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Building-Resilience/Pages/Traps-Divorced-or-Separating-Parents-Should-Avoid.aspx.