Divorce is an emotional and financial roller coaster from start to finish.  You’ll face numerous challenges along the way, and one of the most difficult of these can be when you must break the news to your children. Besides you and your spouse, your children will be impacted the most by the dissolution of your marriage. How you tell them will also set the tone for the weeks or months that follow until your divorce is finalized.

You may think divorce is especially challenging for children at a younger age, but the truth is that divorce carries an emotional wallop for children of any age, even after your kids are grown and have left the house.

How you break the news to your children will depend on several things, such as your relationship with them, the amount of turmoil in the home, their ages, and the relationship you have with your spouse. If you and your spouse are in a bitter war, now is the time to set those battles aside for the good of your children and break the news in the best way possible.

Here are some tips for breaking the news to your kids without creating fear and panic about the future or making them choose sides:

  • Form a Unified Front: When kids get one message from their parents that’s the same, it helps them process the situation. When each parent presents a different story or different cause, it can lead to confusion and sow the seeds of distrust between kids and parents. Plan the conversation with your spouse and agree on how much to share and how you will answer questions. If there is an especially negative piece of information or something you think is not age-appropriate, work together to determine how and what you will share with them.
  • Pick the Right Place and Time: Your children will remember every detail of your divorce announcement, from where they were to when it happened. This is a traumatic event in most children’s lives, which is evident in the fact that when surveyed, many young adults with divorced parents said they would never forget the moment they learned about their parents’ divorce. Be thoughtful when choosing a place and time. Plan the event somewhere the kids feel comfortable on an unassuming day without any significance.
  • Keep it Age Appropriate: Keeping your messages age-appropriate is not set in stone by the calendar age of your children.  Some children are more emotionally equipped and have personalities or a level of maturity to handle news about a divorce better than others.

The circumstances of your situation will also dictate how you navigate delivering age-appropriate messages.  So, how you speak to one child may need to be modified when speaking to another child who is the same age.

Based on a child’s age, here are some general guidelines to consider:

  • Birth to five years old: The younger the child, the less likely they will be to grasp the concept of divorce.  They are not able to anticipate future situations or understand their feelings to any measurable degree.  When talking to younger children, you need to keep messages simple and concrete.  Let them know which parent is moving out, how often they will see that parent, and who will be looking after the child.  Answer their questions with short and clear answers.
  • Six to eight years old.  Children can form complete thoughts and convey their feelings, although the finer points of divorce will still elude them.  As opposed to younger children, they are less egocentric about what’s going on in their world.
  • Nine to eleven years old.  At this age, because their cognitive abilities are even more developed, children may be more judgmental and that could result in them assigning blame for the divorce.  You must be careful to not nurture this line of thinking when telling them the situation.  You might consider letting them read simple books about divorce as a means of helping them process what’s going on. 
  • Twelve to fourteen years old.  Teens have a much more developed ability to understand divorce at this age.  They may also have less emotional control which could lead to outbursts or fits of depression.  You must be more subtle in your approach and be prepared to answer complex questions.  Keep in mind that although they may be rebellious, they still need you and your emotional support as much as ever.
  • Fifteen to eighteen years old.  Their independence is growing stronger, and they may try to hide emotions or retreat to friends much more readily.  This age can be tricky because teens of this age think they can be more independent than they are.  Your messages need to reconfirm that the divorce is not their fault and that while they are older, you still unconditionally love them and always will.  Be sure to leave the door open to communication.

After you’ve broken the news, divorce is an ongoing conversation. Sometimes it will be propelled by your child’s need for more information.  Other times, you will drive the conversation with actual changes that are taking place, whether it’s moving out of the family home, figuring out parenting time during a separation, or any other number of big life changes.

Your child may be in denial or reluctant to talk about divorce, so, when possible, let the conversations evolve at their pace.  Just be available to them to provide constant reassurance and to set their minds at ease as much as possible.

Creating an open and honest dialogue to help your children process this difficult information can support them emotionally and help them avoid acting out or seeking unsafe coping mechanisms to process the information.

Hayley Lisa

The Divorce Coach for Men