5 Tips for Talking to Your Child About Divorce

mom talking to her daughter about divorce

We've all heard the unnerving stat that one out of every two marriages today ends in divorce, and many divorcing families include children. With this reality comes the need for many moms to sit their kids down and discuss exactly what the "D-word" means for the family.

"All good moms want their children to be happy and successful and worry that their children will have another obstacle to overcome," notes family therapist Julie Gowthorpe, PhD, RSW. "Parents should remember that it is the disruption of the divorce that causes the most stress, and therefore, efforts should be made to support children through the process." The best way to do that, of course, is by talking about it.

Here, 5 expert tips for tackling the tough topic with your kids in the best, most sensitive and productive way.

  1. Tailor the talk based on their age and other factors. You may want to try different approaches based on your child’s age and temperament, personality, and general ability to handle stress and anxiety. For example, "Young children may be most concerned about where they are going to sleep," says child and adolescent counselor with the American Counseling Association, Carol Hinman, PhD. "They may even ask where daddy is going to sleep in the new apartment. This is because young children (sometimes up to age 7 or 8) will likely not understand what is going on until the actual separation and visitation plan starts." Considering factors like this before the talk can help you be more prepared for your child’s reaction.
  2. Have a game plan. The topic in and of itself can be stressful enough, so experts recommend that parents be prepared and armed with specifics about what the future may hold. "Mothers should ensure that they have a plan in place before sharing the situation with the children," says Dr. Gowthorpe. "Kids do not need to be exposed to unnecessary uncertainty, as this will only increase worry or anxiety. They need to know that mom will continue to make good decisions for them as she has always done." This can be accomplished by being prepared to discuss how kids’ school and home life may change.

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  3. Shoot for a full family sit-down. "If at all possible, both parents should be part of the discussion with the children," says Dr. Gowthorpe. "Having both parents present shows a united front, emphasizes that the children will continue to be loved and cared for by both parents, and demonstrates that the parents will continue to ensure that the children's needs will come first."
  4. Avoid finger-pointing. Depending on the circumstances, it may be difficult to keep intense emotions at bay, but doing your best to remain neutral will be best for everyone involved. "Blame for the separation should not be placed on either parent," says Dr. Gowthorpe. The best way to avoid doing this and remain calm? "Talk your feelings out with another adult (a professional or a close friend) and have adult support nearby if necessary before beginning the discussion," says Dr. Gowthorpe.
  5. Keep the conversation kid-centric. It can be easy, especially when emotions are running high, to veer off onto topics that have to do with the divorce (like finances or other disagreements) but aren’t really relevant to how it will affect your child. Dr. Gowthorpe emphasizes that moms should do everything they can to keep all communication centered on the child. "When children ask questions, ensure that responses are to the point," she explains. "Focus on reassuring them that their needs will be met and that mom and dad (or other parent) will continue to love and care for them. This should be made very clear." The reason? "Children often blame themselves as a way of trying to feel in control of a very stressful situation," says licensed clinical psychologist Michael Whitman, PsyD. But emphasizing unconditional love and care for your child can help relay the crucial message that the divorce is in no way their fault.

What else do you think should be taken into consideration when talking about divorce with kids?

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