Love, Always

How to talk to children about divorce.

“Mommy, why is Daddy going away?”

“Daddy, why do you hate Mommy?”

“Do you guys still love me?”

“Is it my fault?”

If you are a parent—and you are navigating the difficult waters of divorce—these kinds of questions can feel like a knife in the gut.

Divorce

It can be tricky to know how to respond. What should you say? How much information is “too much” for a child to handle? What’s best for your child?

Each family dynamic is different, and each child is different, so it’s difficult to summarize the “right way” to talk about divorce in a single article, like this one.

My general suggestions—as a psychologist, coach, and attorney who has worked with family law cases—is to use common sense, choose your words thoughtfully, give plenty of love and reassurance throughout the divorce process, and ultimately, let your actions (hugs, presence, attention, quality time, being kind, keeping promises) speak even louder than your words.

In a moment, I’ll share a few “conversation scripts” that my clients have used to talk about divorce with their children of different age groups, from toddlers all the way to grown-up children. These scripts are not appropriate for every situation, but they may provide a good “starting point” for you.

First, here are some general guidelines on how to approach the topic of divorce, listen, and give your children the reassurance that they need:

: Give simple, factual explanations.

Whether your child is two years old or eighteen, keep your communication simple, factual, and straightforward. Your child does not need to know all the complex, intricate details about all of the stressful events that led up to this point. Less is more.

: Present a unified front.

Whenever possible, discuss your divorce when your ex-partner is present, right by your side. Present a “unified front” for your child. Demonstrate that—even though some things are changing—both parents are still present, still communicating with one another, and still very much in charge.

: Encourage your child to share how he or she feels.

Your child will probably have a lot of questions—and a lot of emotions. Listen patiently. Reassure your child that it’s OK to feel all kinds of feelings about these changes. Be supportive and comforting.

: Explain that this change is best for the whole family.

It’s likely that—in the months leading up to this point—your child has witnessed you and your partner fighting, treating each other poorly, or living in a state of tension. This is a good moment to explain to your child that this divorce is the beginning of a new chapter—less fighting, more peace—and that this change is what’s best for the whole family.

: Explain that some things are not changing—and will never change.

Divorce is a huge transition—one that can leave your child feeling rattled and uneasy, wondering if “everything” is going to change.

Be sure to emphasize that some things are not changing—and will never change.

You might try saying something like:

Divorce means we won’t be married to each other anymore, but we still love you and we will be your parents forever. That hasn’t changed. That will never change. Even though mom and dad won’t be part of the same family, you and dad / mom will always be family, and you and me will always be family.

: Let your actions speak louder than words.

While it’s important to talk to your child about your divorce, what you do is just as important as what you say. Let your actions speak louder than words.

If you say, “We both love you and we’re here for you,” let your actions reflect that message. Give your child plenty of hugs, play together, cook together, read together, share plenty of quality time together. Show that you can be “counted on” and that you’re not “going anywhere.”

Also, as much as possible, keep your child’s usual routines in place—rules, chores, dinnertime, bedtime, and so on—with both parents, in both households. This kind of consistency will help your child to feel more secure.

Here are some “conversation scripts” that you can use to talk about divorce.

(Please note: these scripts are for educational purposes only and may not be appropriate for every situation. If you’re uncertain about what to say to your child—or if you’re concerned that you’ll “lose it” and get very emotional when you try to have this conversation—please book a session with a counselor, family therapist, life coach, or another specialist who can help you determine what to say and how to keep your emotions in check when you say it.)

For toddlers (age 0 – 3)

Try saying something like…

Mommy and daddy love you very much. But starting now, Daddy will live in a different house, and mommy will stay in this house. You will stay with mommy, and you will see daddy too.

Mommy will take care of you, give you your favorite foods, read you bedtime stories and tuck you in, and give you lots of hugs. Daddy will take care of you, give you your favorite foods, read you bedtime stories and tuck you in, and give you lots of hugs.

For young children (age 3 – 6)

Try saying something like…

Mommy and daddy aren’t going to be living together anymore.

Daddy is moving out today and will live in Uncle Bill’s house. You will live here with me for one week, and with daddy the next week. We love you so much. Daddy will take care of you when you are with him, I will take care of you when you’re with me.

For older children (age 6 – 12)

Try saying something like…

You’ve seen mommy and daddy fight a lot and not be friendly to each other. So we are not going to live together anymore, but we are still your parents and we love you so much.

Mommy will live in a different apartment and you’ll stay here with daddy during the week, so you are near your school. You’ll spend the weekends with mommy. You’ll have your own special room when you stay here with daddy and when you stay with mommy.

For teenagers (age 13 – 17)

Try saying something like…

You’ve seen your dad and I arguing a lot and we have decided to get a divorce. We just weren’t able to stop arguing and not fight.

Divorce means we won’t be married to each other anymore, but we still love you and we will be your parents forever. That hasn’t changed. That will never change. Even though mom and dad won’t be part of the same family, you and dad / mom will always be family, and you and me will always be family.

[Then explain whatever the custody / visitation arrangement is. Be as specific and detailed as possible. Let your child know that their input about the plan will be welcome.]

For grown-up children (18+)

Try saying something like…

Your father and I have not been able to resolve our conflicts, despite our efforts, so we have decided to get a divorce. We both love you very much. That will never change. None of this is your fault.

Even though it didn’t work out for us, we believe in happy marriages and in a loving family. We want you to learn from our experience so that you can have a happy marriage and a loving family, if that’s what you choose.

Final thoughts:

“There is no such thing as a ‘broken family.’ Family is family, and is not determined by marriage certificates, divorce papers, and adoption documents. Families are made in the heart.” ―C. JoyBell C.

Divorce doesn’t have to mean “bitterness” or “struggle” or “pain.” It definitely doesn’t have to mean “brokenness” either. But it’s up to you, as the parent, to set the tone.

Take good care of yourself so that you can take excellent care of your kids, too. This means getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and taking steps to manage your stress levels so that you can be a role model and a supportive presence for your child. (Don’t hesitate to consult a family therapist to help you and / or your child with this transition.)

Remember that every word, and every action, sends a message.

Let your message be one of unity and love:

“Our family might be changing, but we are strong. You have nothing to fear. There is more than enough love to go around.”

. . .

This article was originally published online on Psychology Today.  To read more of my articles in my column on Psychology Today, click here.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always contact your physician or qualified health provider before implementing any new personal growth or wellness technique and with any questions you may have about your health & well-being.

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