How to talk to children about divorce

Protecting your children is often the hardest part of divorce: often, their biggest hope is that you can all stay together. Telling them that you're getting divorced is hard, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier on all of you

Even if things have been rocky for a while, it's highly likely that your children hope you'll find a way to patch things up and stay together. Even grown-up kids can be affected by their parents' break-up.

To do your best by your kids, psychologists believe, it's important to acknowledge their grief and to understand the implications of your split on them.

How to tell your children you're getting divorced

  • Be honest and open

If possible, tell them together. Agree with your co-parent what you're going to say and how you're going to answer any questions. It's also a good idea to finalise all your decisions before talking to your kids about them.

“It will come as a shock but don't play it down and if you're 100% sure you will not get back together, don't leave them with hope that you might.”

  • Know the difference between sad and bad

Ending a marriage that's not working is a big change and a sad thing, but it doesn't have to be a bad thing – it is important to communicate this to children. As one wise Mumsnetter put it:

“A good family with happy parents is definitely better than divorced parents. Divorced, but separately content parents are better than parents who are together but poison the children with their negative atmosphere.”

  • Keep it short and sweet

Avoid rambling and stick to your key messages: that you love them, it's not their fault, and you are both still their parents.

“I don't think it comes down to one conversation – it's more of an ongoing process of reassurance. The main thing is to keep listening to them and letting them know that both of you still love them. It isn't something that can be explained in just one conversation.”

  • Tell all your children at the same time

Even if your toddler and your ten-year-old are probably going to have different levels of comprehension and may well react very differently (more on that later) they can comfort and support each other. Telling all your children at the same time also avoids any secrecy.

“I think it's better to tell all your kids together, otherwise anyone you tell later might get upset that someone else was told first. Keep everything age-appropriate, and try to keep them informed about the practical side of things so they're not left wondering what might happen.”

  • Don't be surprised by their reactions (or lack thereof)

Your children may have a very strong reaction to your news, or they may not seem to react at all (more on this later). Try to acknowledge any emotional reaction they do show and not feel affronted by a lack of immediate response.

“My children, age 12 and 14, are doing well 15 months on from my ex-husband leaving. We have done all the right things – no bad mouthing each other, solid access routine, and an open-door policy to talk about anything.”

How children react to divorce

man talking to son

When faced with their parents splitting up, many children go through a cycle of emotions that is often called 'the grief cycle'. This process spans a range of emotions: from shock, denial and disbelief, to blame and anger.

How children are likely to react can depend on their age; keep these factors in mind when you tell them, and as you answer their questions about the split.

Very young children are often baffled by what's going on. They don't have the verbal skills to express themselves, so they might respond in other ways – for example, bedwetting in a child who was previously dry through the night. Primary school-age children often have fantasies about reconciling their parents, and may go through an intense period of grieving.

“Young children are very interested in practical details – who will sleep where, will they have their own pyjamas at both houses and so on.”

Older kids are better able to understand and to rationalise what's going on; as a result, they may be angrier than younger children. Kids of this age may also side strongly with one parent over the other.

Teens understand better what's going on, but problems can arise because they're going through a period of extreme change in their own lives – working out their identity, friendships, and future.

Crucially, if you have already spoken to your children about ending your marriage and it didn't go to plan, don't worry – it's never too late to start communicating openly and effectively.

Divorcing with amicable

amicable is an innovative approach to divorce and separation for couples, using an app. They want to help separating couples achieve better outcomes for their families – minimising cost and emotional fall-out. An app can’t prevent divorce, but amicable thinks it is a sad event – not a bad event – and focuses on people being able to move on successfully with their lives. They aim to prioritise and support the journey from parenting to co-parenting and put children first.

Find out more about amicable here.