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Telling Children About Divorce: Before, During and After the Discussion

Suggestion:  How to Break the News of Your Divorce to Your Kids: Before, During and After the Discussion

When parents decide to end their marriage, one of their biggest concerns is how their children will cope with the news. Although children may struggle with this new transition, there are several things that parents can do to make it easier to break the news and to help their children get through the divorce process.

This is not easy. Divorce is inherently wrenching and difficult. Add to that the fact that most children are not well equipped to handle it. As psychologist Edward Kruk wrote in 2015 in Psychology Today:

The key to talking with children is to understand the experience of separation from their point of view, and to develop strategies that fit with each child’s age and stage of development. Children have a limited ability to understand what is happening during divorce, what they are feeling and why. Younger children see things from their own perspective, and tend to see themselves as the cause of events. They often blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. Further, most children secretly believe their parents will get back together, or wish that they would, and try to “fix” things and figure out ways of keeping them together. 

Before telling children about their intent to divorce, parents should sit down with each other and try to agree upon a script for the conversation. Parents should also pick a time and a place to hold the discussion. Parents should avoid times that conflict with a significant event, like one of their children’s birthdays, and should select a place that is free of distractions.

The couple should tell the children together, rather than explain the decision to separate individually, in his or her own way. Psychologist Donald T. Saposnek wrote recently in an online mediation journal that the concept of storytelling can be the key to making this painful conversation as effective and empathetic as possible. He wrote:

In my many years of working with divorcing families, I’ve learned that one of the most important first steps that parents can take in preparing their children for the changes ahead is to develop, together, a “mutual story of the divorce,” and to tell it to their children together as a family at the same time.

Once parents begin the conversation about their impending divorce, they should focus on the positives of the situation and emphasize that the divorce is not the children’s fault. Parents might tell the children that even though they will no longer be married, the children will still have two parents who love them very much. Additionally, parents should avoid blaming their spouse for the divorce and, instead, focus on assuring the children that they will try to keep their children’s day-to-day life as close to the way it was when both parents were there.

As the divorce process moves forward and a the new child sharing arrangement is established, there are aspirational steps that parents can take to help children cope with their situation:

  • Parents should avoid confiding their worries to  their children. For instance, parents should not discuss any financial concerns with their children.
  • Parents should avoid making negative comments about the other spouse to or in front of their children.
  • While spending time with their children, parents should refrain from quizzing them about what happens at the other parent’s home.
  • If possible, parents should avoid introducing major changes into their children’s lives soon after a separation.
  • Parents should encourage their children to maintain the relationship they have with the other parent.
  • Parents should continue to parent as they always have and not do things for their children because they feel guilty about the divorce.
  • Parents should not use children as messengers. For example, requests to change the access schedule should be communicated directly from parent to parent and not through a child.

Although parents may be prepared to help their children through the divorce process, they may still have concerns about how much time they will have with their children after a separation. Parents with these or similar concerns should reach out to an attorney who can guide them through this process.

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