How to Talk to Your Kids About Separation & Divorce

Apply these dos and don'ts when you answer your kids' questions

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Many divorcing parents have shared with me that telling their kids was the hardest thing they ever had to do. Making the announcement won't be easy. And it won't be quick. But going into it with these dos and don'ts will help you know what to expect and move through the experience with sensitivity and love. 

How to Talk to Your Kids About Separation & Divorce

  • Do Tell the Truth - Your children are extremely perceptive. Do not attempt to lie to them or withhold basic information. At the same time, though, be aware of the fine line between answering their questions and telling them more than they need to know.
  • Do Remain Positive - Your children will take their cues from you. Make every effort to remain positive and upbeat, and you'll find that your attitude is contagious. The changes you are making in your life right now may not be the ones that you would have wanted, but life is an adventure, and together you're going to make the best of it.
  • Do Remind Your Children That You Love Them Unconditionally - This is absolutely critical. Even if your kids aren't hinting that they have questions about whether you could ever fall "out of love" with them, tell them explicitly over and over again that you will always love them, no matter what they do. You want them to know that there is absolutely nothing that could ever stop you from loving them!
  • Do Make Sure Your Actions Support Your Words - This one is tricky. We all know that actions speak louder than words, and nowhere in our lives is this truer than with our kids. However, right now, you're hurting; and you may find it extremely difficult to be patient and caring with your children when every fiber of your being is screaming for some space to grieve your loss. Try to be aware of whether the messages you are giving to your kids with your words match the messages you are giving them with your actions, and even your body language. Being consistent in this regard may mean that you have to occasionally schedule some time away from your kids so that you can sort through your own feelings and return home with renewed energy and resolve.
  • Do Be Patient - You may find that your child asks the same questions over and over. This doesn't necessarily mean that you aren't explaining the answers clearly enough. Children often need to hear the same information many times in order for it to make sense in their own minds. In fact, many children will replay these important conversations, while they are resting or playing, and knowing that they have the answers and sequence correct in their minds can be very reassuring.

    Your kids will, rightfully, have a lot of questions when you tell them about your divorce or separation. And it's important to plan ahead, collaborate with your ex about what you plan to say, and know what disclosures to avoid.  

    How You Talk to Your Kids About Divorce:

    • Don't Speak Negatively About the Other Parent - Being a product of yourself and the other parent, your children will not be able to separate negative words spoken about the other parent from their impressions of your feelings about them. So as angry as you might feel toward the other parent right now, remember that criticizing him or her in front of your children will feel to them, either subconsciously or consciously, as though you are criticizing them as individuals, not just the other parent, with whom you may be legitimately angry.
    • Don't Change the Subject or Avoid the Conversation - Honor your children's need to discuss their questions. This is natural and should not be avoided or discouraged. In addition, you may find that your children will ask certain questions again and again. Try to empathize with their need to familiarize themselves with as many details as they can, and be patient when they approach you with the same questions you discussed yesterday.
    • Don't Share Inappropriate Details - Respect that your children do not need - and should not be privy to - the specific details leading up to your breakup. Keep those details to yourself when responding to their questions. In addition, if you feel they are pressing you for more information than you are prepared to share, tell your children outright that some of these details are adult in nature, and while you want to answer all of their questions, there are some details that you will not discuss.
    • Don't Expect Your Child to Take Sides - It's nice to have people around you who agree with you and support your decisions and actions. However, that supportive role is not one that your children should fill. Save that for your adult friendships. Remember that this is not about taking sides. Regardless of how wrong you feel your ex's behavior and decisions have been, your child will - one some level - still desire to have a relationship with him or her, and you can support your child by being supportive of that continuing relationship.
    • Don't Talk About Child Support - Finally, child support is an adult concern. Your children have no control over when and if those child support checks will arrive, so spare them the details when your ex's child support checks are late or altogether missing. Keep in mind, too, that your children are most likely already well aware of your ex's shortcomings in this regard, and outwardly blaming him or her in front of your children will only make them feel unnecessarily responsible for this adult matter.