Telling Your Kids about Divorce

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are going to get divorced. How do I tell my 3-year old daughter and 7-year old son what’s happening so they’ll understand that it’s about their mother and father, not about them?

A: Divorce is never pleasant for anyone. But even if it turns out to be a good thing for the adults, it’s often devastating to children. In a way, it really is the end of their world. It’s great that you’re putting your kids first. Here’s how to break the news.

  • Find a large block of uninterrupted time so you can give the kids plenty of space to react and ask questions. There’s no such thing as a perfect time for this kind of thing, but don’t do it right before bedtime, in the car on the way to daycare or school, or just before you or your wife leave for work.
  • If you and your wife are still trying to work things out, do NOT tell your children that you’re thinking of getting a divorce. You’ll only scare them.
  • Be a team. Regardless of who initiated the divorce or what circumstances got you here, you and your soon-to-be-ex are jointly responsible for delivering the news.
  • Have a script. This is not a conversation you want to improvise. Instead, work out with your wife in advance what you’re going to say and how. The ground rules are simple: Neither of you will blame the other, you won’t argue with each other, and you won’t try to get the kids to take sides. If you’re unable or unwilling to be in the same room at the same time, agree to have separate conversations with the kids, following the same rules.
  • Understand that what you say and what your kids hear may not be the same. Most young children (and plenty of older ones too) will blame themselves for the divorce. It’s important to head that one off as soon as possible by telling them directly that it has nothing to do with them and that it’s something daddy and mommy have decided on together.
  • Also understand that young children are pretty self-centered little creatures. What they really want to know is how their life is going to change. So reassure them that even though you and mommy won’t be living together anymore, neither of you will ever stop loving them, that they’ll still get to spend a lot of time with each of you, and that you’ll always be there for them.

After the initial discussion, your work is far from finished. Here’s what you need to do moving forward.

  • Free up your schedule. It will take your kids a while to process what’s happening—and they’ll need extra time and attention from you. Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over.
  • To the extent possible, keep their routines (school, friends, activities) intact
  • Do not use your kids to spy on your ex or to pass messages to her. And never ever badmouth her in front of them.
  • Be honest. It’s okay let your kids see that you’re sad about the breakup. But don’t put them in a position of having to comfort you. It’s your job to comfort them.
  • Talk to their teacher, babysitter, and friends’ parents, and let them know what’s happening and ask them to tell you if they see any unusual behavior.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed or the kids seem to be having an especially hard time coping, find a therapist who can work with you, your wife, and the kids together.