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Children’s Reactions to Divorce: What They Need From You

When two parents decide to separate or divorce, the prospect of sitting down with the children and explaining what’s going to happen is always nerve-wracking. Often times, parents transfer their own emotions and anxieties onto the children, making the situation more stressful than it could otherwise be. That’s why it’s important to step back, take a deep breath, and consider the most constructive way to approach this challenging conversation.

1. Wait until you’re really ready

Children are good at sensing tension between their parents. In many cases, this tension has been building for some time. Parents often wonder if they should approach their children to discuss “the possibility” of divorce, but evidence suggests this creates confusion. It’s better to have the question of divorce settled between parents before approaching the children. This way, they’re given a definitive idea to work with.

2. Choose the setting carefully

A commonly referenced study from the University of Utah study suggests that many children retain the memory of being told about the divorce — in many cases, the memory stays indefinitely. For this reason, it’s a good idea to put careful thought into where and when you break the news. Avoid moments and places that may already be stressful. Make sure it’s a time and place that feels safe, calm, supportive, and not hurried or rushed.

3. Tell your child together

Many books and studies (e.g. the popular book How to Say it to Your Kids by psychologist Paul Coleman), suggest both parents telling the child together. Not only does this ensure the child gets a consistent message from both parents, it also reinforces a sense of trust. There’s no way to make this conversation easy, but doing it together is often a constructive decision.

4. Important reassurances

Children are liable to blame themselves when they begin to understand the implications of what you’re saying. They’re also likely to feel insecure about the separation, and wonder if they will be able to count on the same love and support from both parents. It’s critically important to make the right reassurances throughout the conversation. Take extra care to tell you child it’s an adult decision and not because of something they’ve done.

5. Keep the conversation simple and blame-free

Casting blame on the other parent might make you feel better for a moment, but it’s not going to benefit your child or help them to process what’s going on. Most divorcing parents report good results when children are spared unnecessary details about the relationship, and are not “caught in the middle” between parents in conflict. In many cases, children will be aware of ongoing tension. In these cases, your conversation can include an acknowledgement of the arguments or tension the child has witnessed, followed by reassurances.

Hitting the right notes

This is an important conversation, and a source of considerable anxiety for parents. By taking your time, exploring proven techniques, and avoiding common pitfalls, you can make things easier on your child and on yourselves as parents. This is a dynamic conversation, and no two separations are exactly alike. Consulting a trained specialist with expertise in areas like co-parenting, custody issues, and therapy/mediation can be a positive step in putting your children’s interests first.