How to Tell Your Child You’re Getting a Divorce

Telling your child that you’re getting a divorce may be one of the most difficult things you have to do as a parent. January boasts the highest number of divorce filings out of any month of the year. Unfortunately, this is a conversation many parents will have with their children this month. In many ways, the way you break this news to your children will set the tone for how the divorce will be handled in the years to come.

I’ve compiled some strategies that may help you share this difficult news with your child. It’s important to note that the approach you take with your child will depend largely on his age and on his ability to process information.  When in doubt, always consult a family or child therapist about the best way to explain this news to your child.

  1. When possible, both parents should tell their child about the divorce together. You should outline together what you agree to tell your child about the divorce. Even though divorce is not always a mutual decision, it is important for the child not to perceive that the responsibility rests solely with one parent.

  2. Pick a time and place that is appropriate and works best for the child.Make sure you are in a quiet environment that is free of intrusions from other people. Avoid bringing up this topic the night before a child has a big test, an audition for a school play, etc.

  3. Communicate your message in a clear and blameless manner. Many times, if you and your spouse have had problems for some time, your child may be expecting the divorce or already understand some of the reasons (although this can depend on the child’s age.) Saying something like, “Your mom and I have tried really hard to get along, and we just can’t anymore.” Avoid: “Your mom has a bad temper.”

  4. Emphasize that your child had nothing to do with the divorce. Explain that there is nothing your child could have done to prevent the divorce and there isn’t anything they can do to fix it. Remind them that you love them very much and nothing will change that.

  5. Tell them what will change, and what will stay the same. Your child will probably have basic questions about what will happen next, like “Where will I live?” or “Who will take me to school?” This is why having a parenting plan in place is so important. Explain where mom and dad will live, and how often you will both see the child. Explain important things related to your child’s routine, and underscore what is staying the same, like: “Mom will still drive you to school every morning.”

  6. Give your child room to ask as many questions as she wants. It’s impossible to predict your child’s reaction. She may sit there stoically and ask very few questions, or her face may be streaming with tears, as she asks every question in the book. It’s important that all of her questions are answered as honestly and completely as possible. You don’t need to give her more information than she needs, such as: “Dad has cheated on mom twice in the past year.” But you can give her basic information such as: “Mom and Dad have fallen out of love, but still love you very much.”

  7. Reinforce the idea that your child still has a family. Although you and your spouse have decided to break up, this is not the end of your family. Your family is simply changing. It’s so critical that your child understands this. Your child will crave predictability and constancy now more than ever. If he knows he is still part of a loving family unit, it will help him on his journey.

  8. Remind your child that as the divorce experience progresses, you want to encourage an open dialog. The first conversation you have, when you break the news of the divorce, should not be the last. Your divorce will unfold in your child’s life in unexpected ways as the years progress. If your child knows  he has two parents who are open to continuing the conversation and healing from divorce, everyone’s best interests will be protected.

Tracy Clifford

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order our new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”