Talking to your children about the divorce

Once you and your partner have decided to split up, you need to plan how you will tell your children.

If possible, it is best if both of you can talk to your children together. However, this is only appropriate if you are able to manage your feelings and opinions about the divorce or separation.

It may be that you both have different opinions about why things did not work out or be in different stages of the emotional process. If talking to children together is going to create more tension, have separate discussions.

How to talk to your children

Important messages to give your children during divorce

Below are some examples of things children need to hear:

  • While the feelings we have for each other have changed, we will never stop loving you.
  • We know this will be hard for you, and we are sorry.
  • You can always love both parents.
  • Just because we may be unhappy with each other, does not mean you have to be upset.
  • What has happened is not your fault – you did not cause this.
  • Divorce is a grown-up problem that you cannot change.
  • We will always be your parents.
  • You will always have a family. Instead of being a family in one home, you will have a family in two homes.
  • We will both continue to be a part of your life.

Discuss what you will tell children beforehand

Whether talking to children together or individually, children need to hear the same messages from both of you. Try to keep explanations simple and avoid placing blame. Use general statements such as, ‘We will be happier living in different homes’.

If you cannot agree on what to say

Sometimes due to hurt and pain, you may feel that your children need to ‘hear the truth’. In some families, one parent may try to blame the other for the divorce.

Holding one parent responsible for the divorce often creates a confusing and difficult situation for children. They will most likely feel torn and worried about betraying or rejecting a parent. Whether or not you initiated the divorce, try to view the situation through your children’s eyes. Children have a right to love both parents.

If you can’t agree, try talking to someone neutral first, such as a counsellor  or a helpline. They can help you agree on what you will tell your children.

Initial talk and follow-up conversations

When you first speak to your children about your divorce or separation, don't overwhelm them with information. Try to keep the discussion straightforward and age-appropriate. Focus on the fact that you are separating or getting a divorce and how life will change.

It is likely that your children will have questions that may need follow-up conversations. Follow-up talks don't have to be formal or structured. You may find that children are open to talking during times such as bedtime, meal times or while engaged in other activities.

Let children know how life will change

Try to address major concerns for children such as:

  • when and how they will see each parent
  • where they will live and go to school
  • how they will spend time with important family members
  • how life will be different.

If your children have questions you are not ready to answer, let them know that you are both still working out the details. Reassure them that when you have an answer, they will be the first to know.

Tell children they are not to blame

It is quite natural for children to feel responsible when parents split up. Make sure your children understand that your decision to divorce or separate had nothing to do with them or their behaviour.

Additionally, children need to know that there is nothing they can do to change what is happening in the family. Reinforce the point that it is not their responsibility to try and make things better between you both.

Make sure children know they can ask questions and talk about how they feel

Let children know you understand this will be a difficult change for them. They also need to hear that they will probably have many different feelings. Reassure them that it is okay to ask questions or talk to either parent.

Keep your issues separate from your children's feelings

When you find yourself having a strong reaction to something your children say, try to stay focused. If you are finding it too difficult, give yourself time out to process what is going on and how you feel about the situation.

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How to listen to your children

“Listening to your children is just as important as talking. They need to know that they are important too and need to feel comfortable asking you questions or talking about any fears they may have.”

Divorce and separation bring many challenges and changes to children’s lives. During this time, one of the most important skills you can possess is being a good listener.

Give children your full attention when they are talking to you

This means turning off the television or stop putting away the shopping. Sit down and make eye contact with your child. If you can't stop what you are doing, let your child know that what they have to say is very important to you. Then arrange a time with your child when you can give them your undivided attention. It is better to ask children to wait minutes not hours.

Listen to your child without trying to fix, judge, criticise or change their feelings

As parents we have a strong desire to spare our children from unpleasant, hurtful or difficult situations. Since divorce can stir up a lot of those experiences, we may try to shield our children by fixing the problem or trying to convince them that they really don't feel that way.

When children are not allowed the opportunity to solve their own problems or have their feelings acknowledged, they are deprived of building both self-esteem and self-confidence. Also, it may be difficult for children to identify how they feel if parents never talk about or recognise certain feelings.

Try to understand your children's feelings and perspective

One way you can let them know that you understand is by focusing on what your children are feeling and verbalising that feeling for them. You can make statements such as ‘I can understand why you would feel that way’, ‘It sounds like you are feeling...’ or ‘It must be really difficult when...’. Understanding does not mean you agree with your children’s perspective. It just means you understand.

Take action

Children need to talk to someone who is supportive and understanding. Taking action doesn't mean you fix the problem or give advice to your children. Once you feel you understand your children then you can make a decision about how to respond. Sometimes it may mean giving them a hug, working together to come up with solutions or having to watch them struggle with a difficult issue or problem on their own.

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If your children don't want to talk

The idea that life is changing can often be overwhelming for children. They may be reluctant to acknowledge the divorce or separation as real.

When children are having difficulty accepting the reality of divorce or separation they may:

  • change the subject when you talk about it
  • choose not to tell others, such as friends, teachers or family members
  • make up excuses for the change in the family
  • talk about the family as if nothing has changed
  • try to plan events that involve both parents being together
  • resist spending time in the other home with their other parent because it makes the situation more real for them.

If your children don't want to talk, let them know you understand this is hard for them. Tell them you understand that they might not want to talk right now but when they are ready, you will be ready to listen.