Talking With Your Children About Divorce

Aaron’s parents attended their parent guidance session as planned to discuss Aaron’s improved academic performance this school year and about Aaron going to sleep away camp for the first time. In our most recent individual session, Aaron and I discussed these issues, particularly his concerns and thoughts, and feelings of excitement and fear about camp. As the parents sat down, I could intuit that there were other pressing matters at hand. Aaron’s father bluntly said that he had decided to get a divorce from his wife and intended to move out to his own apartment immediately. Both parents expressed concerns about what, how, and when to tell Aaron, 11 years old, and his 9 year old twin sisters, Katey and Ruthey.

With roughly 50 percent of all marriages ending in divorce in the United States, divorce can be scary and sad for all involved, but it can have a particular and lasting effect on children. Therefore, it is important to approach the subject delicately. The way this information is presented can set the tone for a child’s response. If possible, both parents should tell each of their children about the divorce at the same time. Although individual responses may vary, parents need to know that children will be anxious and worried about what this situation means. They need to think about several questions.

What do children need to know?

  • They did not cause the divorce.
  • Neither parent is rejecting them.
  • They still have a family even though their parents will no longer be married.
  • Their parents will love them forever, even though their feelings for each other have changed.
  • Their parents will continue to take care of them.
  • There is a reason for the divorce. Parents should agree on an explanation in advance, remembering that too many details may confuse children.
  • Some things will stay the same and others will change. Common questions children might ask are who will they live with, when will they see the other parent and family members such as grandparents, and where will they go to school.

What don’t children need to know?

  • Unless the other parent is a genuine threat, children should not know anything that might negatively affect that relationship. Parents need to be truthful with their children, but should avoid discussing issues such as money or extramarital affairs with them.

What do children worry about?

  • Children worry about the parent who is leaving: Where will Dad live? How will Mom manage? Will Dad be safe? Will Mom be comfortable and happy?
  • Children worry that they will be forced to take sides by their parents, grandparents, or other family members.
  • Children worry that they will have to choose one parent over the other.
  • Children worry about how family occasions such as birthdays and holidays will be celebrated.
  • Children worry about disrupted routines. Who will take care of them when they’re sick? Who will take them to soccer practice or piano lessons? Who will sign their report cards?

Parents should ask their children what they are worried about, recognizing that children might not be able to identify their concerns and feelings right away.

What parents can do to reassure their children?

  • Once parents have identified their children’s concerns, they should try to respond honestly to them. Important decisions such as living arrangements should be shared as soon as they are made.
  • Children need to know their parents will consider their feelings when making important decisions.
  • Because divorce is upsetting to everyone, they need to assure their children that things will work out and life will improve.

While Aaron is away at camp for the next four weeks, his parents and I plan to meet weekly to talk about how and what to tell Aaron and his sisters. We agreed that the parents will not tell Aaron before he leaves for camp, but wait until he returns. And, they will not tell their daughters anything until all their children are together. I plan to meet individually with Aaron when he gets back to talk about his likely myriad and conflicted feelings of anger, sadness, relief, and guilt about the divorce. Additionally, I will recommend to Aaron and his parents for Aaron to join my children of divorce support group forming in September.