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Explaining Divorce to Children

It is difficult to know how to talk to children about divorce. However, research has shown that talking to children about the divorce is helpful for them. Explaining about divorce helps them to make some sense of what is happening in the family. By talking to children, adults can help them understand tension between parents, a parent moving out of the house, or the unhappiness and anger of a parent. It is common for children to think that somehow they are responsible for things going wrong. It can be reassuring to tell them that parents were having problems and that it was not the child's fault.

Children need some time to adjust to the idea of divorce. They may have many questions about what divorce means.

  • Will they see the parents?
  • Will they live in the same house or go to the same school?
  • Will they see their friends?
  • Who will take care of them?
  • Can parents divorce the children or stop loving them, too?
  • Would the parents have stayed together if the children had been "good?"

Explaining the divorce to the children can give answers to some of these questions. The explanations can also help children with questions that they may not even know how to ask.

When you as a provider talk to children about divorce, you should take the lead from the parents. Check with parents to find out what they have said to the children. This can help you support the parents and avoid confusing the child. You can give information that will be consistent with what the child has already been told.

Remember that divorce is confusing for children. When you first talk with them, include only the most important and immediate issues. Children need to hear that their basic needs will be met. They need to hear that someone will still fix breakfast in the morning, read books with them, and tuck them in bed at night. Children also need to know that their relationship with BOTH parents will continue, if possible. This is why it is very important to have discussions with parents about what you can tell the children. You will need to ask parents whether the children will have contact with both parents. Find out from the parents what will be the same or different in the child's life now. This will help you decide what to tell the children.

Here are some suggestions that may help in explaining divorce to children:

  • Talk with the parents before you talk with the children. Take the parent's lead.
  • Give information that is consistent with what parents have already told the child.
  • Keep the explanations simple.
  • Keep the explanations appropriate to the child's age and development.
  • Focus on the immediate concerns of the child.
  • Avoid blaming either parent.
  • Avoid talking about details. Use general statements. These statements can be very helpful:
    • "Mom and Dad have decided they would be happier living in different homes."
    • "Daddy and Mommy have decided not to live together in the same house."
    • "Daddy and Mommy will not be married anymore. They will be divorced. I know you are sorry this has to be the way, but Mommy and Daddy think this is best for everyone."
  • It is best to avoid saying, "Daddy and Mommy don't love one another anymore." Children often hear that they are loved.
  • If parents talk about not loving each other anymore, a child may fear that he will also lose the parents' love if he misbehaves.
  • Listen to the child's questions. Find out what she already knows. Take the lead from the child.
  • Be prepared for children to ask the same questions again and again.
  • Avoid giving false hopes that the parents may get back together.
  • Keep telling the children that the divorce is not their fault.

What to Explain and How

  • Explain that children are not responsible for the divorce

Tell children that the divorce is not their fault. Many children who are 4 or 5 or older believe that the divorce is the result of something that they did. For example, some children may think that parents are divorcing because the child misbehaved or received bad grades in school. Children need to be told again and again that they are not responsible for the divorce.

  • Explain that the divorce is permanent

Make it very clear to children that the parents will not be getting back together. Children need to hear that they cannot rescue or restore the marriage. At some ages, children may also make up stories about their parents getting back together. It is okay to pretend, but explain that the parents are really separated. This can help the children move on and accept other changes that may come into their lives.

  • Explain that the parents love them, and the parents' love for them will not change

Help children understand that the love shared between a parent and a child is special. It is different from the love shared between a husband and wife. Husbands and wives might get divorced, but parents are always parents. Children need to know that the love parents have for them will last.

  • Help children deal with the balancing act of relating to two divorced parents

Help children understand that it will be confusing to deal with their two parents. It may be hard to love both of them at once when the parents don't love each other. Tell children that it's OK to love both Mom and Dad. Children should not feel they have to take sides or worry about losing the love of either parent. After a divorce, children's loyalty may become split. They may feel caught between the parents. Though the parents may never ask a child to take sides, children can still feel they have to choose one parent over the other. Many children take a long time to work through feelings of split loyalty. This is a normal process of children adjusting to their parents' divorce. As a childcare provider, you may be able to help the child deal with these issues. You may say, "Sometimes you may feel guilty for missing Dad while you are staying with Mom. Sometimes you may feel you have to choose whether you love Mom more or Dad more. It's OK to feel all these confused feelings and thoughts. Many children feel that way when their parents get divorced."

  • Give children a chance to express their feelings, and name the different feelings they have

Sometimes younger children do not understand what they are feeling. You can help them learn about feelings by reading books to them about divorce. You can read books about feelings, too. You also can do activities that will help children understand feelings.

  • Explain that they are not alone in the way they feel

Children can feel that they are the only ones who have these troubles. They may feel that their family is the only one that has ever gone through divorce. You can help children learn that divorce happens in many families. This can help the children feel less alone. If you have divorce in your family, you could share how you feel about it. For example, you may say, "I'm sorry that this is so sad for you. I can understand. I feel sad, too. I remember when my parents divorced..." Help children understand that they are not the only ones feeling sad or angry or relieved. You may help the child understand the parents by saying, "Mom and Dad are probably sad about the divorce too. I am sure they are sorry this had to happen to you. They may wish that your family did not have to separate just like you do. How do you think they are feeling? What do you think makes them happy and what makes them sad about the divorce?" This can teach children that everyone has some of the same feelings. It is OK to have feelings and express them to others.

  • Help children understand that their feelings may be different from the parents' or siblings' feelings

Let children know that members of the family may not always share the same feelings about the divorce. Explain to the children that it's all right to feel differently from the parents and from brothers and sisters. A child may not understand why Mom or Dad is relieved about the divorce while the child is sad and hurt. Explain to the child that people have different feelings and that feelings are neither right nor wrong. For example, you could say, "I know you are hurt that Daddy left home. But he and Mom may have been unhappy for a long time. This divorce may be a relief for them. But it is OK for you to be sad." Tell them that feelings may be different on different days, too.

  • Check with the children often about their fears and concerns

Watch for signs that show how the children are feeling. Let them talk about their fears, concerns, and feelings about the divorce or about what is happening at home now. Give children time to think about the divorce and the changes it may have brought about. Don't expect to have only one big discussion. Talk as many times as the issue may come up. Children will want to talk about different issues as time goes on. Take children's questions and concerns seriously and LISTEN to what they say. As one older child said, "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 adults (caregivers, parents, and concerned others) want to help them deal with the divorce and are concerned about how the divorce is affecting them.

Explaining Divorce to Other Children

As a provider, you may need to explain the divorce of one child's parents to other children in your care. These children may wonder why Juan lives with his father on the weekend and with his mother during the weekdays. They may ask questions about why Jenny's father never comes to the childcare to pick her up, or what Jenny means when she says that her parents are divorced. You can help them understand by using simple statements. The other children do not need to know details, but they do need some information. This will also make it easier for the child in the divorcing family. She will not need to explain if you take care of it.

As a childcare provider, you can help children in your setting understand divorce and treat the children whose parents have divorced in a kind way. Sometimes the other children may ask the child in the divorcing family many questions. Sometimes they are curious. Other times they may make fun of the child or tease her. These reactions can make the child from the divorced family feel embarrassed, hurt, or ashamed. It is important to watch for these reactions and to try to avoid them from the beginning. Give a simple explanation to the children about divorce. Talk about it in a natural tone of voice. You can make divorce a normal thing. When children have answers, they will usually go on to other topics and stop questioning a specific child.

There are some words that you could use that will fit almost all divorce situations. You could say, "Jason's Mom and Dad were not happy living together. They have decided that it is best if they live in separate houses. Adults go through what they call a divorce when they decide to live separately like this and are not married any more. Even though Jason's Mom and Dad are not married, they love Jason very much, and they will always be his Mom and Dad."

Sometimes a childcare setting will include more than one child whose parents have divorced. If that is true in your childcare, those other children can be very helpful. They can show that divorce does not need to be a secret, and they can help the child realize that she is not alone. The children may help each other by sharing their experiences.

Some children may be afraid that their own parents will also divorce. This may be difficult to answer. You may not know if there are problems in the families. But you may be able to help the children with that question. You can answer, "Sometimes when parents are not getting along together, they decide to divorce. But not all parents make this decision. Most parents stay together, even though they might argue sometimes. Others may divorce. But even if they decide to divorce, both parents will love their children." You can also tell the children to ask their parents this question. Parents are in the best position to reassure the child that they are not getting a divorce. It may be helpful to let parents know if children ask about whether their parents will divorce. You can tell them you asked the child to talk to them. This way they can be prepared with an answer for their child.

Source: Provider-Parent Partnerships
Purdue University, School of Consumer and Family Sciences
Department of Child Development and Family Studies
by Nithyakala Karuppaswamy and Judith Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE

Page last modified or reviewed by AH on May 22, 2012