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You're Getting a Divorce ... So How Do You Tell the Children?

by Loretta Maase, M.A.


Divorce is not a single event, but an ongoing process that lasts for years. Yet, it can be the defining experience of your children’s lives. How it affects your children will be determined by how you handle the process over time, and not by the specific divorce itself. Your children will follow your lead. If you handle your divorce well chances are your children will too. As you grow accustomed to, and settle in to, your new family structure, you will be leading your children toward the same. One of the first questions is, how do you tell the children? 


Most experts agree that it is best for both parents to talk with their children at the same time to tell them the news. If this is not possible, it is absolutely essential for the parent doing the communicating to talk about the decision to divorce without criticizing or blaming the other parent. It is hurtful for the children to hear otherwise.

Of course, it’s necessary to communicate in age-appropriate ways. Children are perceptive and will pick up on your feelings no matter what you say. So be honest with them – at their level. Younger children will be able to understand a more concrete, simplistic explanation while older children might benefit from more detail. Children will react, of course, and it is essential that parents refrain from blaming each other and from explaining the private details behind their decision. The children simply need to know that their parents can’t get along while living in one home and have therefore decided to separate into two homes. And they need to know that, though their parents may not love each other any more as husband and wife, they will always love their children.

Be prepared to answer questions and keep your answers as neutral as possible, taking great care not to criticize the other parent. Children may ask the same questions over and over again. They are looking for reassurance. Younger children are prone to magic thinking and may believe that their parents will reconcile soon. Older children may accept the news intellectually but privately hope this is only a phase. Children will typically want their parents to reconcile, even if there has been abuse in some cases. Patiently answer their questions with your consistent message: You and their other parent will live in separate homes, but you will still love them and be there for them.

Parents should be careful to explain that they are separating from each other, but not from their children. Children often fear that their parents are leaving them too. They need to know that this is not the case. They will need to hear from both of you that you will still love them, will still be in their lives, and will be there for them no matter where you live.

Children often assume that they are responsible for their parents’ divorce on some level and they will need to be assured that they had nothing to do with their parents’ decision. If parents can have a direct conversation with their children and provide ample reassurance that the decision had nothing to do with them, they will begin the long road of creating a foundation of coping and acceptance.

Children naturally respond to separation and divorce differently. If there has been a lot of conflict in the home, children can feel relieved when their parents separate. Relief is a normal response to ending conflict. Other children will show signs of stress, such as: regressing to an earlier developmental stage, having temper tantrums, acting out, exhibiting anger, withdrawing. Understand that these responses, if temporary, can be normal for children going through change. You can’t fix normal. However, if stress turns to distress and affects your child’s functioning, you might find it necessary to consult your family doctor or a therapist. Children’s developmental needs and age-appropriate responses are covered in more detail later on in this course.

For many families, separating and establishing two separate homes is a very painful process. This is true particularly if one parent does not want the divorce. This can be a very emotional stage for both parents and their children. It’s important for you to listen to your children with empathy. As much as possible, simply listen to your children if they want to talk. Let them voice their thoughts and feelings without trying to fix or solve their pain. At this stage, children need to feel safe enough to tell you how they feel without fearing that they will hurt you or increase your stress. Listen and tell them that you understand, without trying to fix or solve their issues.

© Loretta Maase, M.A. All Rights Reserved. Loretta Maase, M.A., - Executive Director of Parent Rise. Ms. Maase has an undergraduate degree in child development and a Masters degree in Counseling, with a specialization in child development and parent-education. She is the author of 'The Parent Rise Connection' parenting program for single parents. As former Regional Director of two foster care agencies, clinical director of The Parenting Center of Albuquerque, and therapist in private practice, Ms. Maase has taught parent education to hundreds of parents since the 1980’s. She is the proud parent of two daughters, Lily and Arielle.{jcomments on}

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