How to Talk to Kids About Divorce

It is estimated that 40 percent to 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce, and while it can be difficult for all individuals involved, many parents are particularly concerned with the toll it takes on their children.

Divorce can be a time of stress, change, and uncertainty whether or not parents get along. The effect it has on children can depend on a variety of things including age, the amount of transitions and how quickly they occur, and the level of support available. Children’s responses can also depend on their ability to develop coping strategies, as well as on how both parents are coping themselves.

When should I tell my children about the divorce?

The decision to divorce is often a complicated and difficult decision for parents to make. Factors impacting the process vary and are family-specific. Parents should share their decision to divorce when they are fairly certain a separation will occur and are able to be calm and emotionally present for their children during the conversation.

Divorce can be a lengthy process and parents may contemplate delaying the conversation as long as possible.  However, parents should consider that details of the divorce could be leaked by family or friends, or even from children overhearing parents’ conversations. Parents should follow-up with their children immediately if there is concern they have heard about the pending divorce from someone other than them.

If children are asking about the parents’ relationship, they likely already have some indication about the separation.

How do I tell my children a divorce or separation is happening, and how much do I tell them?

As with most things in life, divorce is a time when being transparent is helpful. Here are some helpful suggestions for parents:

  • If possible, have the conversation with your children together in order to help preserve the relationship with each parent.
  • Avoid blaming each other and focus on the overall well-being of their children, in a way that is as honest and direct as possible.
  • Acknowledge you are separating and what it will mean in regards to visitation.  Helping children to maintain their friendships and important activities is important to them.
  • Assure children that the divorce is not their fault and not related to anything they did or did not do.
  • Consider the age of your children when providing additional details, and try not to disclose anything that would harm their relationship with the other parent
  • If there is a safety issue or some other atypical circumstance, think through what will be helpful to your child, and how that can best be communicated to them. In some circumstances it may be helpful to consult a counselor or other professional for help.  If you aren’t sure, speak with your pediatrician or other trusted person in your life.  Ultimately, it is important to reassure the child that you will keep them safe and that they are loved.
  • Allow them to ask questions and try to be as honest as possible without going into excessive detail that will confuse or burden them.

What if they have difficulty coping or start to act out?

It is not uncommon for children to act out or seek additional attention when they don’t know how to manage or make sense of change. Common responses include:

  • Externalizing behaviors such as aggressive behaviors, arguing with others, or failing to take responsibility for typical daily activities such as school work or chores.
  • Internalizing behaviors such as excessive worry, inattention in school and withdrawal from the activities and friends they enjoy

Sometimes all the child needs is extra time to talk and to think through what the changes will mean for them, and extra reassurance that things will work out.  Children may also benefit from increased time with loved ones and positive peers. Having a predictable schedule with and ability to contact the other parent can also be helpful.  While some extra slack may be in order, it is important that you maintain the expectations you have for your child’s behavior and their school work. Doing so reinforces that you as a parent are OK and managing your own stress and loss in a healthy way.

For more information on Nationwide Children’s Behavioral Health Services, click here.

Kamilah Twymon, LPCC-S
Kamilah Twymon, LPCC-S has been part of the Behavioral Health team at Nationwide Children's Hospital since 2007 and is currently the Clinical Coordinator of the School Based Program and Community Partnerships. She collaborates with Columbus, Bexley and Canal Winchester school districts along with several community partners on wellness and prevention efforts. Prior to her current role Kamilah provided oversight to the Community Based Programs. Kamilah began her career at NCH as a therapist and then supervisor with the Multi-Systemic Therapy Program.
Sarah Schmidt, LISW-S
Sarah Schmidt, LISW-S, is the Clinical Coordinator of the Juvenile Justice Programs within Behavioral Health. She has 14 years of experience working with children & families, with a specific interest in adolescents and delinquency. Sarah oversees three community-based treatment teams, an outpatient substance abuse program, and an assessment team that is located at the Juvenile Court.

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