How do I explain divorce to my child?

When a couple decides to divorce, often, their biggest worry is how to tell the children and the impact on them.   

The way in which the news is delivered can significantly affect how children receive, and handle, the information.  

Impulsive, unplanned conversations with children about divorce rarely end well.  Conversely, carefully planned conversations, which prioritise the children, typically result in more positive reactions. 

Explaining divorce to children is much more complicated than simply describing what the concept means.  It requires careful consideration of each child’s individual needs and sensitive, age appropriate discussions around how divorce will impact their lives.  

 

Factors to consider when developing a plan 

 

 

1. Who is going to tell the children?

If the parents’ relationship is in a good enough place, telling the children together is the most child focused approach. Presenting a united front demonstrates to the children that their parents can still work together.  Moreover, that they can put their differences aside when it matters.

The caveat to this, is that the conversation should be tension free. If this is not possible, parents should consider an alternative approach.  For example, settling on one parent delivering the news and agreeing the narrative, at least. This will ensure consistency in the message the children hear from both parents. 

If it is not possible to tell the children together or agree the narrative, planning is still advisable.  Presenting a neutral picture to the children prioritises their best interests. A one-sided perspective entices the children to take sides which fails, in any way, to serve them. 

 

2. The timing of the conversation   

When to have the conversation, generally, can be a contentious point for parents. 

One parent may wish to delay the conversation to protect the children for as long as possible.  Or they may be keen to reach decisions on big issues first so that they can provide certainty to the children (such as where they will live). 

Faced with this predicament, it is helpful for parents to consider whether any of the children have picked up on difficulties between them. Children are smart and attuned to their parents.  They may have noticed the smallest detail.  For example, that their parents do not eat meals together, share a bed or are cold or more formal in their communications with one another. 

If it is possible that tensions have been detected, having the conversation sooner rather than later is likely to be beneficial. Alternatively, children may make up their own narrative which could be more damaging than the truth.  

The passage of time also increases the risk of children seeing a text, overhearing a conversation or being told by someone else.  It is much more traumatic for children to learn about their parents’ divorce inadvertently.  

Parents don’t need to have all the answers to have the initial conversation.  It is acceptable to explain that big decisions require careful thought, and that their parents are working on it. 

The specific timing of the conversation should also be carefully managed.  

Children usually require space to absorb the news emotionally.  Telling them when they are busy in the school week, about to go to club, or to a party, is unlikely to be a good time for them.  

Inevitably, children will need support from their parents as different things come up for them once the news lands. Finding time at the beginning of a quiet weekend allows parents to support, answer questions and continue the conversation before the start of a new week.   

 

3. The ages of the children 

Children’s understanding of divorce will depend upon their developmental levels and ages.  Parents should carefully consider how they will tailor discussions according to their children’s specific maturity and needs.  

A common concern is whether to tell siblings collectively if the children’s ages vary.  Siblings are usually a great support to one another.  A brief, initial conversation with all the children ensures that the children can support one another when they first hear the news.  Separate follow up conversations provide an opportunity for parents to address more age appropriate and specific concerns with each child.    

Key points to cover in the conversation

 
If parents decide to tell the children together, agreeing the message in advance is key. This will significantly reduce the chances of the conversation derailing or someone saying something unexpected/unhelpful.  
 
If a parent is telling the children alone, preparing for the conversation is still crucial and will ensure that the most important points are covered.
 
Either way, consider incorporating the following into the conversation;
 
 
i) what “divorce” means; 
 
This explanation will depend, to a large extent, on the children’s ages and level of understanding.
 
If the children are teenagers, it is highly likely that they have friends with divorced parents and the term will already be familiar to them. However, divorce is different for every child, therefore, it is important to be clear with teenagers what divorce is likely to mean for them.
 
If the children are younger, more thought will need to go into how to explain this concept to them in an age appropriate and sensitive way.
 
Irrespective of the children’s ages, each child will have their own separate worries and concerns.  Pre-empting what they are and being prepared to deal with them will demonstrate that their needs, as individuals, have been, and are being, considered.
 
 

ii) why you are getting divorced;

 

This is often another contentious point for parents, especially if there are strong feelings that one bears more responsibility for the marriage breakdown. 

Whilst tempting to lay everything squarely on the other parent’s shoulders, this will not help the children to heal. Instead, it tends to increase anxiety, make things more confusing and leave the children feeling caught in the middle. 

The blame game is invariably far more damaging to children than keeping the narrative neutral.  Children are part of both their parents and if one parent is critical of the other, children can often interpret that as a criticism of them. 

For parents struggling to agree on what the children should know about the marriage breakdown, asking the following questions may assist; 

  • how is this information going to help my child? 
  • how might it hurt them?
  • how will it impact the other parent’s relationship with them? 
  • am I sharing this information because my children should know it or because I need to tell it?


iii) what is going to stay the same;
 
Stability, at a time when things are likely to feel chaotic, is extremely important for children. 
Highlighting what will stay the same should feature in any discussion. For example, they will go to the same school, have the same friends, continue to have relationships with their extended family on both sides etc.  

 
iv) what is going to change;
 
This is an obvious concern for children.  Being ready to explain what parents know will change, starts to prepare children for what divorce is going to mean for them.

It is probable that there are aspects of the divorce that remain unresolved (such as how the children will divide their time or where they will live).  It is perfectly acceptable to reassure children that their parents are working on it and taking their time to make sure they get it right. 

 
v) when the changes are likely to happen;
 
Even if parents don’t know precisely, sharing some rough timescales with older children will help them to start preparing for changes. 

 

vi) what reassurances can you provide;

Children are not always able to articulate how they are feeling, especially during the initial conversation.  Building reassurances into that conversation will start to allay common fears children experience when they are told that their parents are divorcing.  For example, that;

  • the divorce is not their fault; 
  • both parents love them unconditionally;
  • they have permission to love each parent equally;
  • it is OK to be sad and upset;
  • they will not be asked to take sides; and/or
  • both parents are there to support them.
 

 

How to help your children after the initial conversation has taken place

 
  1. Be available for them;
  2. Make time to talk to them regularly – individually and collectively;
  3. Provide updates when you say you will;
  4. Look out for adverse reactions and try to deal with them head on.
 
Resolution has created an excellent guide for parents going through separation (“Parenting Through Separation”).  Page 15 of the guide deals specifically with how children of certain ages may react to divorce and how parents might help them.  Being familiar with this section helps parents to stay one step ahead.  
 
Resources are another great way to help children make sense of what they are going through.  They can also be used as a talking point for parents, especially if the children are struggling to express their feelings; 

 

  • There are many useful books aimed at helping children deal with divorce, most of which explain divorce from children’s perspectives. Researching and purchasing literature before the initial conversation takes place, means that children have immediate access to age appropriate resources, if they need it.  
 
  • There are many documentaries dealing with family breakdown specifically designed for children. For example, “Split” is a documentary film for children and parents wherein 12 children from separated families share their journey.  Resonating with other children who have been through a similar experience can help children feel less isolated. 
 
It is highly advisable to read/preview any resources before sharing with children. Not every resource is a fit for every family.
 
 
Final note 
 
Divorce is hard for children.  However, research supports that children adapt more easily to family changes when handled well by their parents.  Changes alone are unlikely to create long-term adverse effects on children.  By contrast, a badly managed divorce and ongoing parental conflict can have far reaching consequences and should be avoided wherever possible. 
 
If you require any more information, contact Confidante here.  
 
 
 
 

 

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