Family, Kids & Relationships

Divorce and Separation—How To Talk To Kids About It

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Telling your kids that you and your partner are splitting up is one of the hardest conversations you may ever have as a parent, which is why it’s so important to prepare beforehand. Even though there is no right or wrong way to talk to your kids about this subject, there are certainly ways to do it with empathy, love, and plenty of reassurance—three things your child will need a lot of once they begin to digest what you’re saying.

How to start

First, it’s important to talk to your child in person, together, as a unified front. This means getting on the same page about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. “Children will probably remember this conversation, what you say, when and where they hear it,” Ann Gold Buscho Ph.D., told Psychology Today. “It would be best to work with your spouse to decide how you will inform them.”

Start by emphasizing that the divorce or separation is not at all the child’s fault — and be prepared to repeat that more than once. It’s important that they know you love them and that nothing will ever change that, not divorce, not anything. Even though the marriage may be ending, your family will continue to exist, it may just look and operate a little differently.  Remind them that even if you aren’t together, each of you will always be their parent. That will never change.

If your split is acrimonious, it’s important to keep those feelings well under wraps. Any criticism or ill will that may exist should be hidden away when talking to your kids, or it will cause confusion, fear, and more ill will. “If it’s extremely difficult for you to speak with your spouse, or you can’t agree on how you will do it, consider using the services of a mediator, divorce coach, or counselor to help you work out the details,” suggests Dr. Buscho. Any finger-pointing or blaming will cause children to feel caught in the middle.

Finally, make sure you have a plan that the two of you are on board with, especially if one parent is going to be moving out. This helps prepare your kiddo for any upcoming changes to their daily routine. Try to get ahead of any questions they are likely to ask you. For example, if one parent usually does the school drop-off or pickup and that will now change, be prepared with the new plan. The more secure you feel about your future as a family, the better the chance they will feel more secure about these changes, too. And if there are any small silver linings to the split, like your child will get a second bedroom at their new, second home, it’s OK to bring that up to help soften the blow. 

But be prepared for this to sting — for everyone. And while it’s not a great idea to get into specific details about why you’re breaking up, especially if one party betrayed the other or something comparable, it’s not in a child’s best interest to hear it. Instead, offer a more general reason as to why you’re splitting up, and tailor it to their age level. Here’s what to expect by age and stage, so you better prepare if this talk is in your future:

Babies/Toddlers (0-3)

Even though they might not understand what’s going on exactly, even little ones can sense a shift in your mood and most definitely a change in routine. The most important thing is to keep their day-to-day lives as consistent as possible. If their routine has to change to accommodate a new living arrangement, for example, try to do so gradually, so it’s not an abrupt shift. And if you’re ever tempted to argue in front of them because “they can’t understand anyway,” reconsider.  Divorce is one of the adverse childhood experiences that can have long term effects on a child’s mental well-being, according to Beechacres, a parenting resource center based in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

What to say: “We both love you so much. We’re always going to be here for you and take care of you, even though we’re not going to be living together anymore.”

Preschoolers (3-5)

Consistency becomes even more important at this stage because a child this age is better able to recognize a shift of any kind. Routines continue to be important, and if they’re shaken, you may notice behavioral changes like clinginess during transition times, extra fussiness at sleep or meal times, or even bedwetting. Fear of abandonment at this stage is real, so be prepared to tell them how loved they are as often as possible. 

What to say: “Mommy and Daddy [or whatever names you go by] are getting divorced, but we will always be a family. We both love being your parents and that will never change. This is NOT happening because of anything you did or didn’t do—it’s just part of grown-up relationships sometimes”

School Age (6-8)

At this stage children are more likely to feel conflicted when it comes to where to place their loyalty. They may feel caught in the middle, even if your split is amicable, simply because they’re being forced to float between two homes and two separate ways of doing things. Children at this stage may also harbor hope for reconciliation, so be prepared to address those with love and empathy, especially if you’re certain that you and your partner will not be reuniting. From sadness to anger to general crankiness, these changes can have a multitude of effects on your child simply because they’re more capable of emotion and understanding than younger children. This is a critical time to ensure your child has a network of extended family, friends, teachers, and others they can tap whenever they need to. This expands the love in their life and creates a feeling of community, so they never feel alone. 

What to say: “There are going to be some changes in our family, but the love we have for you will never change. These changes are not related to anything you did or didn’t do, it’s a decision made between married people because we’ve realized that we’re better as friends than as a couple. While our family will have two homes instead of one, you will still have the same school, friends, grandparents, and extended family you always have, plus two parents who are as committed to this family as ever.”

Preteen (9-12)

This is a tough age that tends to view these situations in extremes. For example, a child may have really strong feelings about whether one parent is right or wrong, at fault, or the victim. From their sleeping and eating habits to their performance in school, the stress that divorce can add to a child’s life at this stage may manifest itself in different ways. Listen and acknowledge their feelings often, making it a priority that they feel heard, loved, and respected. Be a good role model by keeping any negative talk about your former partner to a minimum (or completely nonexistent, if possible). Whatever you do, don’t rely on your child to help you get through this or to communicate with your ex. That will only enhance the feeling of being caught between you. Instead, develop a direct rapport with your ex so you can discuss co-parenting, or appoint a mediator, but never your child.

What to say: “We are splitting up, but you remain the most important thing in the world to both of us, and our love for you will never change. We will always be here for you and come together as a family when we need to, even if we’ll be living separately. This will take time to get used to, but we are both supportive of each other and this decision and as committed to guiding you and loving you as we’ve ever been, you can count on that.”

Adolescents (13-18)

Teens can often seem like mini adults, but they’re not, so it’s important not to treat them like they are. Even though at this stage children are much more focused on their friends and social life than their family, they still need both parents to guide them, love them, and provide for them, even if they seem to be handling things well. Because they are older, wiser, and better able to understand what is happening, they also have easier access to resources that can help them make sense of divorce, but as much as possible, they should be hearing from you.

Even though their emotions and reactions may seem dramatic and exaggerated, it’s because they’re caught somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, without feeling firmly planted in either. Whether they’re aloof and ignoring you or acting up by hanging out with the wrong crowd, ditching their studies, or experimenting with drugs, alcohol, or sex, being honest with them about everything and providing them with plenty of opportunities to talk to you, your former partner, or someone else is important. Whatever you do, don’t burden them with the responsibility of feeling like they have to support you but rather make sure they have friends and other networks they can tap that will support them — in addition to you, of course. 

What to say: “After much reflection, consideration, and conversation, we’ve decided that it’s best for our family if we get divorced, but we remain committed co-parents to you and friends to each other. We know this hurts and it will bring some changes to our lives, but our love and support for you will never end.”

Whatever age or stage your child is in, make sure they know you’ll be there to answer any questions they have, any time they have them.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.