A Parent’s Biggest Fear: Telling the Children About the Divorce

By Marlo Van Oorschot
Van Oorschot Law Group PC

In the now distant past, divorce was embarrassing to talk about mostly because it was not socially and morally favorably looked upon.  Nowadays, with national divorce rates estimated to be 40-50%, the archaic shame of divorce may have waned but there remains a legitimate fear, that being talking about the divorce to the children.

The Fear. Understandably, parents fear that telling the children about a divorce will negatively impact their lives; disappoint them; destroy the joy of a particular time of year (holidays, birthdays, etc.), and simply make them sad. All of these fears are legitimate and, while some may come to fruition, the fact is, these possible realities can be minimized.

The Reality. There is a significant amount of literature about children of divorce and the impact of the divorce on children’s lives. There is no question that a child’s life will change with their parents’ divorce.  Sometimes the change is an improvement, especially if there is domestic abuse in the home; and, sometimes not, at least at the moment.  

The real concern surrounding children that are potentially negatively impacted by the news of their parent’s divorce is how to minimize or eliminate the negativity of the divorce.  While the topic of the impact of divorce on children is complex and the province of other experts to opine upon, it is generally understood that the more aligned the parents are in telling the children about the divorce and how the parents interact with each other thereafter, provides the best opportunity to minimize the impact of divorce for the children.

The “How”.  Children will most likely remember the initial conversation about the divorce forever.  This means there is an opportunity for both parents to make an intentional decision about how to tell children. There is no dispute that this very difficult conversation is best done by parents working together to decide how and when to tell the children.

  1. Plan what you will say.  This is probably the most difficult aspect of the “how” because many couples who are divorcing or separating do not communicate well with each other; or there is a lot of anger.  This is where parents have to dig deep and put the children ahead of their own history and feelings.  A therapist, mediator or divorce coach can be very effective in helping the parents plan what they will say to the children. 
  2. Plan when you tell the children.  It is best to pick a day that allows for some family time, such as a weekend.  Do not do it on a holiday, or another special day, or just before school or bedtime. 
  3. Do it together.  Easier said than done, but it is best if the parents can tell the children together.  This will assure the mutually agreed upon message is delivered, and it demonstrates to the children their parents’ commitment to work together as a unified team for the benefit of their children. It is important for the children to hear about the divorce from both parents and not from siblings or other family members.
  4. Do not assign blame to the other parent.  Remember, regardless of how parents feel about each other, the children love both parents and while they likely cannot articulate it, their identity is that of being one-half like one parent; and one-half like the other. 

    Children should never be made to feel it is their fault for the divorce and they should never feel like they are caught in the middle.  To the extent possible, using the word “we” in explaining the divorce is best without blame or expression of the details.  Consider statements such as, “We aren’t happy together,” or “We both want our arguing to stop,” or “We have tried to work out our differences, but we haven’t been able to.

  5. Answering questions.  Children will ask “why”.  It is best to avoid the specific details but instead give general explanations without blame, such as  “We both want different things in our lives.” “We like each other and want to be friends, but we don’t love each other anymore.” “We both want to be happy and not sad any longer”.
  6. Explain the outcome.  Children desire safety, predictability, and stability. Therefore, have a plan prepared to share with the children such as where will they sleep, when will they see each parent; where will their toys and clothes be; how will they get to school; who will tuck them in at night; what happens if they miss the parent they are not with and want to talk to the missed parent; what happens when one parent is sad that the children have gone with the other parent.

Informing children about divorce is not easy.  However, telling children about a divorce is a pivotal and crucial moment that is hopefully met by both parents with the best interest of the children.  The research is fairly consistent in suggesting that reducing conflict between the parents and increasing communication (between parents and with the children) may reduce the negative impacts that divorce has on children.  Parents should use this key moment in their lives as an opportunity to put their children first, to unite the family in this transition, and consider how their family unit will function prospectively with the children’s best interests in mind.