Helping Children Understand Divorce

When parents decide to divorce, they typically have been through a series of events that have led them to this decision. Whether or not children are aware of parents’ decisions depends on many things, including parents’ behaviors and children’s experiences.

In some families, husbands and wives may argue frequently in front of the children, leaving children to suspect that something is going on. In other families, parents may talk quietly about their differences without the children ever knowing. And in other families, parents may argue sometimes and quietly handle their differences at other times.

Regardless of the type of adult arguments and interactions that children experience, when parents decide to divorce, children need to know.

The purpose of this guide is to help you understand the thoughts and feelings that children may have when their parents decide to divorce and to provide some tips for talking with children about divorce.

Talking With Children About Divorce

Children’s reactions to parental divorce are related to how parents inform them of their decision. Because of this, it is important for parents to think carefully about how they will tell their children and what they will tell them. When possible, the entire family should meet together so that both parents can answer children’s questions. This strategy may also help parents to avoid blaming each other for the divorce. The following tips might make this a smoother process:

  • Set aside time to meet as a family
  • Plan ahead of time what to tell children
  • Stay calm
  • Plan to meet again

What To Tell Children

Remember that divorce is confusing for children. When you first talk with children, limit your discussion to the most important and most immediate issues; children can become confused if they are given too much information at once.

Children need to hear that their basic needs will be met, that someone will still fix breakfast in the morning, help them with their homework, and tuck them into bed at night.

Children also need to know that their relationship with BOTH parents will continue, if possible. In the face of so many changes, children also need to hear what will remain the same. Parents can reassure their children through words and actions that their love will continue despite the changes in routine family life.

During these family discussions, it is important for parents to tell children that the divorce is final and avoid giving children false hopes that the parents will reunite. Parents can also use this time to tell children that the divorce is not their fault.

Most children older than 4 or 5 years commonly believe that the divorce is the result of something that they did. For instance, when asked why parents divorce, some children may explain that parents are divorcing because the children misbehaved or received bad grades in school. Children need repeated reassurance from parents that they are not responsible for the divorce.

Remember to ask children about their fears and concerns. Give children time to think about the divorce and the changes ahead.

Meet again as a family to talk about new questions and to reassure children of your ongoing involvement in their lives. Take your children’s questions and concerns seriously and LISTEN to what they say. As stated by one child, “this is gonna affect the rest of my life and I don’t know if they just don’t realize that, or don’t care, or what, but I don’t feel like I’m being heard.”

Children need to know that parents recognize the impact of divorce on children’s lives. By listening to children’s thoughts and feelings about the divorce, parents demonstrate their ongoing care and concern.

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University of Missouri-Columbia

Sara Gable, State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies
Kelly Cole, Extension Associate

Copyright 2002 University of Missouri.
Published by University Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia.

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