Divorce: Telling the Kids

You and your ex-to-be should put aside your differences in order to have this important conversation with your children.

How to Talk About It

Kids shouldn't feelcaught in the middle.

How easily a child adjusts to the news that his parents are getting a divorce depends largely on the conflict level between the parents during and following separation.

Reaching agreement on what to tell your children can be especially difficult when you haven't been able to agree on much lately. Nevertheless, this is a time for parents to set aside their animosities and work together.

Here are some guidelines to help you tell your children about your decision:

  • Tell them together. Neither parent should be excused from this conversation. Even if it wasn't exactly a joint decision, you should inform the children jointly.
  • Don't inform the children until your decision is final. Telling children "We're thinking of separating," or words to that effect, will only upset them and make them tremendously anxious. Don't ask the children their opinions about the decision, either.
  • Wait until a day or two before the actual separation to make the announcement. The more time between breaking the news and the separation, the harder the kids will work to keep the two of you together. Ideally, the day you tell them should be a non-school day. If that's impossible, keep them out of school. One of the worst things you can do is tell the children and then send them off to worry for the rest of the day at school or day care. They need time to react.
  • Don't improvise! Decide beforehand exactly what you're going to tell your children and stick to it. The more you blunder or surprise one another, the more confused and upset both you and the children will become. It's a good idea to rehearse the conversation so you won't be stumbling.
  • Anticipate what questions your kids may ask and have your answers prepared. Careful planning of this sort shows your children that you're confident of the decision, and helps them feel more secure about it.
  • Keep the actual conversation short and to the point. There's really no reason to let it last longer than a few minutes, five at most. And no speeches. As Sgt. Joe Friday of Dragnet used to say, "Just the facts, ma'am."
  • Don't editorialize. The best explanation is simply, "Things haven't worked out the way we planned, and we think it's best we no longer live together." Answer their questions, but tell your children that you believe this decision is the best one for the whole family. Under no circumstances should you say, "We don't love each other anymore." Nor should one parent make the other the villain, as in, "Your mother has decided she doesn't love me anymore and wants me to move out."
  • Be prepared for the worst possible reaction. Sometimes children take these things well, sometimes they don't. If a child becomes hysterical, you must be ready to react with authority.
  • Reassure your children that you still love them. In this time of upheaval, it's important for children to know that certain things will never change. Even though you will no longer be husband and wife, tell them you will still be Mom and Dad.
  • Try to let them know where they will live and when they'll see you. Although children may have some strong opinions on this subject, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss it. Later, when things have calmed down, you can solicit their opinions about custody and visitation issues. The children should also know that although the parent with primary custody is going to be making the most decisions, major decisions will still be made jointly.

Common Questions Parents Ask

Q: Don't children often blame themselves for their parents' divorce?

A: This notion has become a cliche. If the parents argued a great deal about the children, the kids could feel guilt, but it's unlikely otherwise.

Q: How should we deal with our children's efforts to reunite us? There is no chance of a reunion.

A: Efforts by children to get their parents back together are typical. If you sense that one or more of the kids has taken on this responsibility, it's important to stop it right away. Deal with it straightforwardly. You might say, "We've noticed that you keep trying to get us back together. We think we understand that it's an expression of love for us, but it's important that you not try to do this."


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