Tips for Telling Children About Divorce, By Age Group
Announcing a divorce to your children might be one of the most difficult conversations you will ever have. Children are always hoping for the best, even when parents have been fighting for a long time.
You may have considered and planned the divorce for months, but this conversation is often the children’s first encounter with the idea of divorce. The way you frame this discussion will shape your family’s attitude toward the long and emotional journey you are beginning together.
Present a United Front
Parents must present a united front, even if the desire for a divorce is not mutual. It’s your responsibility to make sure the children feel confident both parents can make important family decisions together. Parents should work together to create what clinical child psychologist Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D. calls a “mutual story of the divorce,” and deliver the news together. This prevents children from hearing two conflicting sides of the story, which can lead to confusion and distrust.
Children need to know that even though the marriage is ending, you will always be their mother and father, and you both will always be there to guide and support them. Getting a divorce does not mean the family stops being a family, it is just going to look a little different. You will always be a family.
Regardless of the circumstances of the divorce, you should never assign blame to one parent over another. Your children love you both, and you must give them permission to continue loving you both. Spare them the pain of feeling stuck in the middle and forced to choose.
You might be surprised to find that your children are not surprised by the announcement. Children are a lot more observant than we realize. Even if you tried to hide spousal conflict from your children, they may have picked up on some underlying tension.
Every child has a unique personality and set of experiences. They are going to process the news in their own way, on their own time. Below are some general tips for announcing a divorce to children based on age group.
Toddlers do not have a very deep understanding of the concept of divorce. They are completely dependent on parents and see the world in very simple terms. They do not understand their feelings in any given moment. They do not think analytically or try to predict the future.
For these reasons, child psychologists recommend giving young children the basic information without overwhelming them. Toddlers should understand that mommy and daddy will be living in different houses, but they will be able to visit and play in both homes. They should know what house they will primarily be living in, and how often they will visit the other parent.
Reassure toddlers that mommy and daddy will always take care of them, love them, and still be a family. They should understand that nobody is leaving them behind, their parents are just living in two different places. Children this age thrive in a routine. It is critical for parents to develop a custody and visitation schedule as soon as possible, and then stick to it.
This can sometimes be a tricky in-between age. School-aged children are old enough to have a better concept of divorce and may already have some friends with divorced parents. However, their understanding of the issue remains simplistic, and they have a limited ability to process and articulate their emotions.
Rather than asking questions about the details of the split (i.e., who is leaving who, what happened, etc.) school-age children might be more preoccupied with how the split affects their ability to play with friends, have birthday parties, or participate in school and other activities. They should know exactly how their social life and routine will be affected.
Some younger children may become scared or anxious that parents can “fall out of love” with children too. Remind your kids that parents never stop loving their children, they are bonded together for life. Children this age need to understand they did not cause the divorce and they cannot fix it.
Teenagers can better understand the complexity of a divorce, and may have more questions, sadness, and anger. They may assign blame to one parent or even themselves for the divorce. It is never appropriate to share all the details of the split with your children, regardless of age. Parents should stick with their “mutual story of the divorce” and not expand further without discussing it together.
Teenagers are naturally beginning to challenge parental authority. They may act out and avoid spending time at home, opting instead to hang out with friends. Some teenagers will try to push parents away, testing to see how much they care. Give them space when needed, but never stop trying to connect with your children.
Parents must establish a consistent schedule and a shared set of ground rules for behavior. Encourage teenagers to continue living their life, hanging out with friends, practicing hobbies, daydreaming about college, dating, all the normal things that teenagers do.
If There Are Significant Age Gaps Between Siblings
You may want to address children separately if there are significant gaps in age. An older sibling is going to understand the concept of divorce in a much more advanced way than a toddler and might react in a way that upsets a younger child. They may also have questions that seem overwhelming to a younger sibling.
If you feel it’s best to tell the children separately, you should have conversations with all children within as short a time frame as possible. You don’t want the oldest child to feel burdened by a secret from their siblings.
Choose Your Words and Actions Wisely
Feelings around divorce can be complicated. Children might feel relieved by some changes and saddened by others. Make sure children know they can continue asking questions and openly discussing the divorce with both parents. If they are afraid of upsetting you, consider using a family counselor or child therapist.
Your children will remember this conversation for the rest of their lives. For the sake of the kids, put marital conflicts aside, plan your message ahead of time, and make your words count in this monumental family moment.