WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHY, WHEN AND HOW: Telling Children You're Getting Divorced

By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT

Divorce begins with too many unspoken words and things at the end of the day

For many parents deciding to divorce, informing their children is among the most difficult and worrisome parts of the process. There has been so much written, depicted in movies and television, and spread through anecdotal stories about the damage children suffer in divorce, parents are frightened about handling the divorce “wrong” for the children. It can add to more stress and tension between the divorcing couple in how they will manage the divorce with their children.

While some opinions of the experts differ, some things are fairly consistent in the advice they give.

  • It's best if both parents tell the children together
  • Reassure the children they are not at fault and they continue to be loved by both parents
  • Provide enough information to satisfy their need to know (consider age and development in what information you supply)
  • Give them clear information on near term logistics (where they will live, how they will see each parent, etc.)
  • Avoid negative comments or statements about the other parent
  • Don’t think a single conversation is enough

It is generally best to let the children know as soon as both parents have passed the point of possible reconciliation. Children are sensitive to parent behaviors and their anxiety in not hearing the truth can be costly. It is important for parents to plan – and have a plan – to tell their children. The plan should have, as a minimum, considered explaining why you are divorcing (not details, but substance), where they will be living, where the other parent will be living, when they will see each parent, and preparation to answer, as truthfully as possible (consider age and development) questions the children might ask. Children need to know they are loved, will be cared for, and are not responsible for the divorce.

A family meeting, at a time and in a place, without distractions is best. Provide ample time for questions. Plan at least a second meeting after everyone has had time to digest the information. The divorce is a process, not an event, for the children. Be there for them.

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