HELPING CHILDREN UNDERSTAND
Sara Gable, State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies
Kelly Cole, Extension Associate
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
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
- 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
2002 University of Missouri.
Published by University
Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia.