How NOT to Tell Your Kids You are Getting a Divorce


The only thing worse than getting a divorce is telling your kids about it. Here is what NOT to do.

Telling your spouse you want a divorce is hard. Telling your kids you are getting a divorce is a hundred times harder. As an adult, you know what divorce is going to do to your kids’ lives. You know it is going to change everything. You know it is going to hurt them. You want to protect them from the pain you know you are about to inflict on them, yet you also know you can’t. Is there a way you can tell your kids you are getting a divorce that won’t scar them for life?

While there is no good way to break bad news to anyone, especially your kids, there are definitely a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” you should keep in mind when you are trying to figure out how and what to tell your kids about your divorce. Here is a list of the things that you definitely should NOT do!

10 Ways NOT to Tell Your Kids You are Getting a Divorce

1.    Share all the gory details of what caused your split.  Yes you want to be honest. But your kids do not need to get the blow-by-blow account of everything that went wrong in your marriage.  Even if they are old enough to understand what happened, that does not mean they need to know it. 

2.    Share nothing about what caused your divorce.  Under-sharing is just as damaging to kids as over-sharing.  In order to help them adjust to your divorce it is important to make sure your kids understand, in a general, and age-appropriate way, why you are getting divorced.  This is especially true if you and your spouse didn’t openly fight in front of the kids.  Kids who have spent their lives thinking that “mom and dad are fine,” are more likely to be frustrated and confused when you split because they didn’t see it coming. To help your kids adjust, you need to make sure they know why you are getting divorced (in a general way).

3.    Break the news to them as soon as divorce is a possibility, before you know where they will be living, who they will be living with, whether they will be able to stay in the same school, or any other details of their lives after the divorce.  Your kids may love you, but they are also human. They are worried about themselves. They are worried about what their lives will look like after you get divorced.  Telling them you are getting a divorce before you are able to share any details of their new lives with them is a sure fire way to increase their anxiety.

4.    Get so wrapped up in your own pain that you forget to tell them that your divorce is not their fault. Children, especially young children, tend to internalize the divorce decision. They create “reasons” in their head about how they caused their parents divorce.  These “reasons” are often completely unrelated to what really caused the divorce. These reasons are also things that you, as a parent, would never have thought of in a million years! That is why it is so important that you tell your children (multiple times) that they had nothing to do with your decision to divorce.  It is not their fault.

5.    Tell your kids you are getting a divorce while you are fighting with your spouse, or when you are an emotional wreck.  How can you be sensitive to what your kids are feeling if, while you are in the middle of a screaming match with your spouse, you turn and scream at them, “That’s it! Your father/mother and I are getting a divorce!” What are they supposed to think? What are they supposed to do? How do you think they are going to feel? Similarly, telling your kids that you are getting a divorce while you are so mired in depression or despair that you can’t think straight is also a bad idea.  Remember, you are the adult.  You are supposed to be taking care of your kids, not putting them in the position of having to take care of you.

6.    Don’t wait for a “family meeting” to tell your kids you are getting a divorce.  Yes, life happens and it is not always possible to arrange a family meeting to break the news of divorce to your kids. But, unless you have a really good reason for telling your kids about your divorce alone (i.e. your spouse is openly abusive or won’t participate in the conversation) it is always best to present a united front when you tell the kids you are getting a divorce.

7.    Tell your kids about the divorce separately.  Kids are just like us: they talk! If you tell your five year old you are getting a divorce now, and expect him to keep his mouth shut about it long enough for you to tell the same news to your ten year old when he gets home later in the day, you are dreaming! To the greatest extent possible, all your kids should  hear about your divorce at the same time.  Not only can you then be sure that you are the first one to tell all of them about your divorce, but you will also provide an environment in which your kids can be there to support each other when you break the news.

8.    Don’t plan ahead.  Tell your kids about the divorce at some random time, when they are tired, hungry, distracted, or have somewhere else to go soon.  This is really a no-brainer. You have no idea how your kids are going to react when you break the news of your divorce to them. They are going to need time to process the information, and to ask questions. They are going to need to rage, cry, bargain, argue, fight, or let out their emotions in whatever way is best for them.  Telling your kids such important news when they have something else going on, or somewhere else to go, is completely disrespectful of them.

9.    Promise them the sun, the moon and the stars just to make them feel better.  Yes, you feel guilty.  Yes, you are upset at having turned your kids/ worlds upside down. But, promising them that you will do, buy, share or create something for them that you know is impossible will only disappoint them that much more when you can’t deliver on your promises. Bite the bullet now. Don’t make promises unless you know for sure you can keep them.

10.    Don’t reassure them that you love them (over and over again) or tell them that, no matter what, you will always be their parent.  Your kids can never hear “We love you” enough, especially at this difficult time.  Even still, don’t be surprised if your statements of love are met with an angry, “No you don’t! If you loved me you would stay together!” Let your children express their anger. Then tell them you love them again.  No matter what their reaction is, they can never hear that too much.  Out of everything on this list, this is the best thing you can do.

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This article was originally published at Karen Covy's blog. Reprinted with permission from the author.