divorce and children

How to Explain Divorce to a Child

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Everything seems so perfect the day of a wedding. There is dancing, celebration, and the dream of a wonderful life together. Everyone expects the marriage to last forever. But having a relationship that lasts is hard and takes work. People get hurt, problems fester, or perhaps someone wanders into the arms of another. No couple expects that divorce will find their marriage, their home. However, we have all seen the statistics. It is brutally painful to see a marriage end, let alone to experience it. The situation is intensified when you add divorce and children.

Children experience the most pain in a divorce. They have no control over it and have little understanding of why it’s happening. Divorce is confusing and complicated, especially for kids. The intent here is not to debate whether divorce is ever appropriate. It’s to make explaining divorce to kids easier. Here’s how.

1. Discuss the divorce as a family.

The divorce discussion needs to happen as a family. Make sure everyone is present. When parents do not present as unified, it creates anxiety in children. Think back to when you were a child and how you felt anytime your parents fought. Obviously, a divorce brings that anxiety to its highest state because a child’s worst fears are playing out. Being on the same page and showing respect to one another as you explain what is happening will be helpful. Be sure to coordinate what should and shouldn’t be said. It may even be good to write down talking points. And both parents should talk, not just one.

2. Don’t call anybody a villain.

Put your hurt feelings aside, regardless of who cheated or who did what else to whom. You can deal with all of that one-on-one. The focus when you’re explaining divorce to children is the children. Communicate whatever you can that will stabilize the situation. Any negative statement or attitude about your ex-spouse (or soon-to-be) throws the children in the middle—exactly where they do not ever need to be. Your ex-spouse may be a villain to you, but your kids consider her a loved one.

Your ex-spouse may be a villain to you, but your kids consider her a loved one.

3. Reassure the kids constantly.

Their world is being jarred, so they will need a lot of reassurance. In many ways, divorce feels like a death in the family. They’re going to feel fear about how life is going to change. Assure them of what will always stay the same: your love for them. They may blame themselves or a sibling. Make it clear that none of this is their fault. Also, list for them what you know isn’t changing; maybe they’re going to live full-time in the same house and they’re not going to have to change schools. The most important thing they need to know is that they still have two parents who love them and will take care of them.

4. Decide in advance which details to share.

The younger the kids are, the fewer details they need. However, be prepared with a game plan of which details you want to share and which can wait until later. You don’t need to be detailed about the causes of your divorce. Keep it simple with general concepts because younger kids are going to be more black and white about it. Tweens will probably ask the most questions while teenagers are more aware and probably will have seen it coming. Regardless of a child’s age, divorce is still painful and hard to understand. You don’t need to cover it all with one talk.

There is unavoidable, ongoing pain in divorce. It’s a difficult reality for children to live. But being unified as much as you can while explaining it to the kids goes a long way in providing some sense of stability. Make every effort to achieve it for the sake of the children.

Sound off: Divorce and children don’t always mix well. How else can parents make this difficult experience easier for their kids?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What qualities do you want in a husband or wife someday?”