How To Tell Your Kids About Divorce (Age By Age)

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How to Tell Your Kids About Divorce (Age by Age)

Divorce is heartbreaking for parents and kids. Use these tips to make it easier on everyone.

One of the most heartbreaking parts of divorce is telling your kids. You don’t want to hurt your kids, but they need to know what is happening.

How to tell kids about divorce is by remembering a few important things (no matter the ages of your children):

1. Be intentional about time and place. 

There’s no way around it. This will be a heart-wrenching and traumatic conversation for everyone involved. Consider what else is going on in your child’s life and break the news when they will be at home for a day or two.

During the school year, Friday night is a good time to tell them because they will have a couple of days at home before they need to go to school and face the world. Do not tell them during a holiday or another special day because this will likely be a traumatic memory. A couple of weeks into summer vacation would be ideal.

Think about where you will tell them and what they are doing when you initiate the conversation. Do it in a private place that is not connected to a favorite or regular activity like bedtime or mealtime, because whatever they are engaged in will probably become paired with strong negative emotion.

2. Tell the children together.

Sit down as a family and have both parents tell all the children together. When this is not possible (for example, if you have a child in college and other children who are still at home), them all in person within a few hours.

You do not want to put a child in the position of keeping a secret from their siblings. Having both parents present ensures that everyone has the same information and minimizes children feeling like they are being coerced into choosing one parent’s side over the other.

3. Do not blame.

Children need both parents, so do your best to ensure that they are able to maintain a relationship with both parents. Deciding to get divorced is an adult decision. It is not appropriate to give your children all the gory details about why you are getting divorced.

Do not blame your partner. Let the children know clearly and concisely, "Mom and Dad are not going to live together anymore. We both love you."

4. Tell them what to expect.

Ideally, both parents will continue to live in the same school district and both will have the children living with them on a regular basis. No matter what the plans are, let the kids know when one parent will be moving out and inform them how you will share parenting time.

Tell them, "You will be living with Mom part of the time and Dad part of the time." This helps establish order before chaos has a chance to set in.

5. Put yourself in your children's place.

Unless the current home arrangement is an abusive environment, you are turning your child’s world upside down. Your children will not be happy about this. They are likely to be angry, sad, and shocked. Be gentle with them. The news will be like an earthquake.

You can rebuild a safe and loving home for them — perhaps one that is even better than their current situation — but it is normal for them to want to stop feeling something like devastation.

Life is likely to get better for everyone. However, your children may not be able to imagine that anything good can come from their parents' divorce.

A few days is enough warning, especially for children who are still living at home. Time seems longer for children. Remember how long summer seemed when you were a child? Or waiting for Christmas?

This exaggerated perception of time also applies to things they do not want to happen. Every day they wait will be one they spend hoping that the divorce will go away.

There are also some special considerations by age that you need to take note of:

  • Preschool

Preschoolers are very concrete thinkers focused on the physical world and facts. They are not yet able to understand most abstract concepts. Tell them they will spend time at both homes. Stress that you both love them and it is not their fault that Mommy and Daddy cannot live together anymore.

Adult problems are causing the parents to not live together. Tell them that you will always be there for them and keep this promise. Stress that you will never stop loving them. If your children go to daycare, let the daycare provider know that you had this conversation.

  • Elementary School

Younger elementary school children are still very concrete thinkers focused on facts and the physical world. Older elementary children are beginning to understand some abstract ideas and concepts. All children, but especially elementary-age children, often feel that divorce is their fault.

Stress that Mom and Dad are going to be living in different houses and getting divorced because of adult problems and it is not because of the children in any way. State clearly that the children will be living with both of you.

Children at this age understand a calendar. Mark a calendar with the first few weeks of the new schedule for when they will be with Mom and when they will be with Dad.

Keep the conversation short and stick to the facts. Let your children know they can ask you questions about the process. Answer their questions honestly, but be mindful that not everything is children’s business. It is not appropriate to give your children details about adult problems.

  • Middle School and High School

This is a confusing time for children. Some days, they act like adults and want to be treated like adults; other days, they act like little children. Everything is in flux. They are figuring out who they are and what they want. During these years, parents lose intelligence by the week in their children’s eyes.

Teenagers may think they get a vote in whether or not their parents get divorced. They do not. Take responsibility for the decision and assure them that it is not their fault. Teenagers may feel guilty and think that if only they had behaved better, their parents would not have divorced.

Emphasize that this is an adult decision that is happening because of adult problems and that it is in no way because of them. Do not share what the adult problems are. Keep it simple and straightforward. Avoid doing or saying anything to try to get the children to pick sides. Assure them that you will always be there for them.

Keep a written schedule of the parenting time so children know when they will be with one parent and when they will be with the other. It is important that only the parents make the decision for the first few weeks of separation. After a few weeks of the initial parenting schedule, parents and teens can sit down together and talk about how it is working.

At this age, it is appropriate for the kids to have input on the parenting schedule, but ultimately it is not their decision. Children should have a regular schedule so that if they are being disciplined at one house, they do not have the chance to avoid consequences by going to the other parent’s house.

  • College

Some couples put off divorce until their children graduate from high school. I understand this reasoning, but leaving home is one of the most difficult times for a person. Your child is launching into the world. They are pushing against the family and finding their wings. They may even act like they do not need home or family, but this is not true.

They need the family in order to launch. In addition to all the other changes, when home disappears, they will need to navigate holidays and visits with parents who do not live in the same place. They will now have experience with this. If at all possible, work together to ease this transition for your young adult children.

Tell college-age children about the divorce when they can absorb the news. Waiting until summer break may be preferable. That way, they will not be working on major papers or studying for finals while thinking about the destruction of their home as they know it. Be clear that you are getting a divorce, but do not go into detail.

Your children are adults, but your marriage is not their business. If you and the other parent fight a lot, it is fine to tell the children that you got tired of fighting and decided you would both have a better life apart. Do not speak ill of the other parent. Even when they are adults, our children need both parents.

Moving Forward

After the initial shock, your children may actually appreciate your decision to divorce. Although they probably do not want their home to change, they want both of their parents to be happy and they want the fighting to stop.

Because they live with both of you, they may already be aware that home is not a happy place. With some careful considerations, you can minimize trauma and rest assured that you and your children can move forward into lives that are better for everyone involved.

Tamara Mason has worked with people getting divorced and helped parents improve their parenting skills for more than 25 years. She offers a free, four-day parenting challenge that will give you even more confidence in your parenting skills. Find out about it here and you can visit her website, Empowered Single Moms.

Watch this video to see what a child of divorce really thinks: