Simple Tips for Talking With Children about Divorce

By Paul Kesselman
talk with children about divorce

Divorce is, without question, a very stressful experience for everyone involved, especially children.  On the scale of stressful life events, it comes in at #2, with the #1 stressful event being the death of a spouse.With this in mind, it is important to consider how does divorce affect children. One of the most important things to consider is the age of the child when discussing divorce, especially with young children.  This article offers insight into how to discuss divorce with children and some resources that may be helpful to parents who are going through the divorce process. 

Children of Divorce

Age 6 and Younger

1) More is not better. Younger children of divorce in most cases, kids who are approximately 6 and younger, will have a limited understanding of what the term or concept of “divorce” actually means.  They will be able to comprehend the changes in routine and environment that it creates, but will have trouble understanding why their parents are not staying together.  In most cases, giving a more simplistic explanation for divorce will be helpful to young children, as too much information may create some levels of confusion for them. 

Most of the reasons that divorce occurs are complicated and difficult,  even for the adults themselves. The most important approach to talking with children under 6 about divorce is to tell them about what is happening but not explain too much about why. 

2) Take a walk in your child’s shoes.  I suggest to parents that they imagine they are in the child’s shoes and to picture what they could possibly make sense of about divorce and then talk to them using this framework.

  • It is very helpful for younger children to express what they feel about the news of the divorce and go from there.  Many young children use fantasy and pretend play in their day to day thinking.  Parents should be aware of how children’s pretend play impacts the child’s understanding of divorce.  There may be all kinds of imagined concerns for these youngsters so parents need to try to understand this so they can dispel any unrealistic ideas.

  • For very young children of divorce, security is a developmental goal, so talking to children in ways that address concerns over security is very important. 

Ages 7-12

Older children, between ages 7-12, are more concrete in their thinking and cognitive abilities.  However, there can still be a huge variation between what an 8 year old can process and that of an 11 year old. Parents must always take into consideration their individual child’s cognitive abilities at all ages.

1) Keep them from getting caught in the middle. In most cases, children at these ages are trying to establish their moral values and greater peer acceptance.  Being aware of these two developmental goals is essential, since these children can sometimes feel caught in the middle of the parents and feel conflicted feelings about their loyalty to each parent and also compare themselves to friends who live in intact families. 

2) Take the high road. Talking badly about the other parent with children, especially children at this age will make things complicated for them, but this should never be done at any age.  Children should never feel as if they have to choose one parent or the other.  All children should be told that the divorce is not their fault, as many children might assume this could be so, especially if they have seen their parents argue about how to parent in the past.  

Ages 13-18 

talk with teens about divorce

Children between the ages of 13-18 are going through the process of becoming increasingly more independent of their parents.

1) Keep your door open.   Keeping the lines of communication open with teenagers is extremely important as they are making many new connections about how the world works and what divorce means to them.

2) Listen first before you talk. Since many teenagers might be going to their peers for more of their information and approval, there might be less of an opportunity to talk with them.   Don’t miss those golden opportunities to talk with them and listen to what they have to say first. 

Support for Children and Parents Adjusting to Divorce

There are many support groups available for parents and children.  Some schools have even introduced groups for children of divorce so that these children can talk about how they feel with others who understand what they are going through. 

I also recommend two other resources to many families that I work with.  One is the book, “Dinosaurs Divorce” which is targeted towards helping younger children understand divorce, approximately for ages 6-11.  It has many animated pictures which will appeal to younger children but also enough words to explain the process to older children.  Parents might need to explain the concepts to their younger children along the way.  I suggest parents read the book first on their own, and then with their children and talk about it along the way and afterwards. 

For parents, I often suggest they read the book “Parenting Together after the Marriage Ends.”  This is a quick read but has several practical tips for parents on how to talk to their children about divorce and the do’s and don’ts of co-parenting. 

Generally speaking, the level of conflict between the parents will affect stress the child feels.  Try to communicate with the other parent as much as possible.  Using therapists to get support for the children and learning to co-parent by using experts in the field are often helpful ways to improve the child’s adjustment.  Be ready to validate how difficult the process is for the child and make sure you let them know how loved they are. 

Want to know more about talking with your children about divorce?

Learn about Parenting and Custody Mediation

About the Author

Paul Kesselman

Picture of Paul Kesselman Paul Kesselman, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist who has a private practice in Devon. He works with children, adolescents, college students, families, parents, and adults. He works with many children, parents, and families who are experiencing divorce and works towards helping them to achieve healthy adjustment and growth. For questions, enrolling your child is a social skills group, or a free phone consultation, contact Dr. Kesselman at (610)285-7366.

Topics: Mindful Divorcing Parent