Tough talks: How to discuss divorce with your child

Divorce can be traumatic for the entire family but there are ways to help children through this difficult time.
Father and daughter talk on a bench

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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

We’ve all heard the statistic that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and while that figure is still not entirely proven to be accurate, the fact remains that many of the children in our country will deal with divorce at some point or another. Divorce can be traumatic for the entire family but there are ways to help children through this difficult time. We asked some of our Parent Toolkit experts for their advice about the best way to help children navigate divorce.

“Ideally, sit down as united front with both parents,” explains parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba. “The child needs to hear the same message from both parents.”

While having that initial conversation, Borba says to try and stay calm and remember than anything can be normal when first breaking the news. Some kids may stay completely silent, while others may react with anger. It’s important for you as a parent to keep the lines of communication open and always try to let your children know you love them and this is not their fault.

“I think the fundamental issue for children is that they not feel that they are the cause of the divorce,” says Maurice Elias, director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. “That’s something that’s really important that parents are very clear about with their kids.”

For littler children, Borba explains, the questions are often very concrete like living arrangements and whether or not siblings will stay together.

“Be prepared for heart-gripping questions from little kids,” says Borba. “‘Am I going to have a new mommy or daddy? Am I going to have my same bed?’ and ‘what happens to the family pet?’”

As hard as it may be, try to anticipate the questions they might ask and have answers prepared. If you don’t have the answer at the time, tell them you’re going to get back to them and follow up when you do have the answer. Some older children may not be surprised, Borba points out. Whether they see parents fighting more often or spending less time together, older kids often foresee the break-up. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to sit and talk with them too.

“Often, parents whose kids attend my summer camp are going through something and they will say that we don’t want the child to know about it and be worried,” says Center for Adolescent Research and Education Director Stephen Wallace. “Kids know, and not communicating with them raises their anxiety level and it’s always better to be transparent with kids and offer them reassurance, which is just what they are looking for.”

Even though it may be difficult, our experts recommend limiting the arguing in front of the children as much as possible. If this means you need to bring in professional help, like a counselor, minister, or another religious advisor, or even a non-biased family member or close friend, do it. Lessening your children’s exposure to fighting is always beneficial to them.

“Parents should not rely on their child’s understanding of their fighting,” adds Maurice Elias, director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. “It’s like touching a hot iron. My child understands that touching it is not a good idea. Just because they understand doesn’t mean they should be continually exposed to it. Being exposed to your parents fighting is the psychological equivalent of being exposed to a hot iron.”

Try to remember that your children still love both of you and try to keep their best interest in mind as much as you can. To put kids in the middle or expect them to choose sides can be extremely hurtful for your children.

“The main message to get across is that the children will continue to be loved by both parents and the parents want them to love both parents,” explains school counselor Shari Sevier. “That is the message that often gets lost. Kids begin to feel that it’s not okay to express my love for dad when I’m with mom.”

Borba recommends parents tell other caregivers like close friends, family, and grandparents before telling your children, especially if it’s likely your child will go to them for comfort. This will help everyone support your child and your family through this difficult time. But make sure the caregivers don’t tell your child before you can.

“I know it’s a tough talk but your children deserve to hear the answers from the people they care and love the most,” says Borba.

If you’re not entirely sure what words to use with the kids, Borba points out there are many helpful books. At the end of the day, honesty is still the best policy.

“It’s legitimate to say ‘people get married, they’re in love, then sometimes they’re unable to live together,’” says Elias. “What comes next depends on whether it’s true – whether mommy and daddy are still going to be friends or they’re still going to be your parents and they both care about you and work together to do what’s best for you. Those are not identical but you want to say what’s true.”

As much as you and your spouse are able, our experts overwhelmingly recommend not talking badly about each other in front of or to your children. The more you’re able to remain cordial and respectful to each other, the better able your child will be able to adapt.

“When it becomes a war, no one wins and the person that loses the most is the child,” reminds Sevier.