Telling Children about the Divorce

Sep 29, 2023

For parents who have decided to separate and divorce, the prospect of breaking this news to the children can be overwhelming—even paralyzing.

This topic will often arise in mediation when parents are still living together and would prefer to resolve matters involving the children (where each parent will live upon separation and what the parenting time schedule will look like) before talking to the children about the impending divorce.

As much as you may dread the thought of this discussion with your children, my experience indicates that, once you have talked with them, the emotional anticipation of the conversation will be replaced by relief that you no longer are keeping something from your children. You may well take some pride in how you handled the challenge.

At one of the first mediation conferences I attended, the keynote presenter was Dr. Joan Kelly, who is internationally recognized as a child psychologist and author of many articles and research studies involving children of divorce. Her insights have proven valuable to many practitioners. In 2009, she authored a valuable publication, “What Should We Tell the Children? A Parent’s Guide for Talking About Separation and Divorce.” I have shared this with many clients. The publication is available for purchase from the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys.

The conversation you have with your children [about your divorce] is the first and perhaps the most important opportunity you will have to show them that you are committed to a constructive co-parenting relationship.

To help you prepare, let me share some key points from Dr. Kelly, along with my own thoughts:

1. Recognize that your children may receive the news of a divorce with the same uncertainty about the future as you and your ex may be feeling. This is why many parents wait until they have a better understanding of how the new co-parenting relationship will work before informing the children.

2. The conversation you have with your children is the first and perhaps the most important opportunity you will have to show them that you are committed to a constructive co-parenting relationship. So… (a) Speak to them together; and (b) prepare a script/message in advance with your co-parent to be clear that the divorce has nothing to do with the children and that the divorce is related to the marriage not working rather than the fault of either parent. Using mediation is an excellent way to work together on doing this. (c) Reassure your children that they are at the center of your lives, that they will always be loved by both of you, and that your decisions will always put them first. Always keep in mind that you are modeling for them how adults adapt to life challenges, an important lesson for any child.

3. Allow time and space for emotions, processing and questions. Each of us differs in how we react to life-changing news, including children. Some will react immediately and emotionally, while others may need time to absorb what is heard. This first conversation is only a beginning, so be prepared to reengage your children over time.

4. Despite having to manage your own emotions, be present for your children and demonstrate your commitment to their well being. What you say to your children matters, and how you follow through is paramount. If they feel the earth moving beneath them, your steady presence will be a source of stability. Seeking the help of a therapist for your own emotional well being (so you can be there for your children) and for them (so they have someone neutral to talk to) can also make a huge difference.

Telling your children about your divorce is an early test of your transition into the future. I encourage you to seek out resources to help you come through this with a sense that you achieved a passing grade, maybe even an A+.