Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: How To Tell The Kids About Divorce? An Ongoing Parenting Process

tell kids about divorcePerhaps even more difficult than the realization that a marriage is ending, is the realization that the children must be told.

Regardless of how different a couple’s views may be on what did or didn’t happen in their marriage, most agree that the children need to be spared as much disruption and distress as possible.

Accordingly, most will follow the recommendations of experts to tell the children together in words suitable to their comprehension level–that Mom and Dad will be separating; that they are loved by both Mom and Dad; that they are not to blame; that sometimes Moms and Dads realize that they are no longer happy together; that some things will change but lots of things will stay the same; that Mom and Dad will still be there for them; that everyone will try to talk about changes so that everyone can feel ok….

Since there are no perfect words to make the loss of the familiar family context sound great to a child, adolescent or young adult, it is worth recognizing that “ telling the children” is only the start of an ongoing parenting process that needs to keep unfolding after the first sit-down takes place.

As you take on this parenting process, here are some considerations to keep in mind:

It’s Not Just What You Say—It’s What You Do.

Be prepared to be ignored, rebuffed or heartbroken by your child’s initial response. Much like adults who are told about something that will change their lives–the initial reactions of children may well be their best attempt to cope.

  • Some young ones will say nothing and simply go play.
  • Some school age kids will burst into tears, or voice worry that everything in their life like school friends, sports, and the bus stop will now be lost.
  • Some teens will begin blaming one or both parents.
  • Some college age kids will validate the decision, “ It’s about time!”

Being patient, voicing understanding, allowing time, validating feelings, or just being a compassionate presence (to a little one who goes off to play alone or a teen who needs a ride to a friend) allows connection and time to process.

Often children have to do something to normalize the situation in order to regain a sense of safety.Let them.

It’s Not Just What You Say—It’s What They See

One of the challenges of parenting is being there for your children even when you are personally distraught and upset. While you may have good cause to be angry or depressed, it cannot be the children’s job to bear the emotional baggage.

If despite the verbal reassurance that “ We are going to be ok,” your child witnesses fighting between parents or silent withdrawal, the message that “ we will be ok” will seem impossible.

While you want to be authentic, the needs of your children may warrant that you get support from friends, family or professional helpers so that you can manage your own needs.

A child can hear, “Yes, I am sad.” “Yes, I wish this wasn’t happening,” A child is reassured when in addition they hear, “But that doesn’t mean I am going to stay sad.”  “But that doesn’t mean we are not going to watch the movie together!”

It’s Not Just What You Say—It’s What You Say About Each Other

A female high school senior once told me, “ I can live with them getting a divorce, I just can’t stand being put in the middle.” Actually, the last role children of any age want to play is judge and jury to their parents’ accusations and criticisms of each other.

Because they are your children – Whatever you say and do to each other – You say and do to them.

In most cases both partners feel the pain of a marriage break-up. Often it is intensified by the children’s reactions or their loyalty to one parent over another (Something which often shifts with age and development). If you can work together across the ups and downs of the child’s developmental journey without competing or critiquing, your child will have less pressure and will have the best of both of you.

It is easier to adjust to Mom’s House-Dad’s House when children can go back and forth and feel proud of the people living in those houses.

It’s Not Just What You Say—It’s How Well You Look and Listen

  • The only real indication of the impact of a divorce on children comes from being aware of your child and listening to what he/ she says.
  • It is often a surprise to find that what a child is really worried about, is not at all what you thought.
  • Being aware of your child’s behaviors (changes in sleep, eating, friends, interests) may signal to you that they may need to feel closer to you. Spending more time in some way–may help them disclose what they need.
  • Just listening, be it to the comments about the other parent, friends, school, scary things, bad dreams etc. offers your child a safe place to bring what he/she may need help containing.
  • Often it doesn’t warrant a response. Sometimes it could invite the question – “ Do you want to speak more about it?” “Do you know what that makes me think about?” or “ Should we make a plan together to help with that?” ” Do you want to read a book together about that?”
  • The goal is not to “ get the information.” It is to stay close enough so there is safety in knowing and sharing both the good and bad feelings.

Most parents worry about the impact of divorce on their children.

Most children worry about their parents when there is a divorce—because they need them.

 Most children can embrace consistent love, laughter and security given by their parents – regardless of the circumstances.


 Listen in to the Podcast “ When is Divorce the Best Decision?” with Andrea Cade, author of Divorce Matters: Help for Hurting Hearts and Why Divorce is Sometimes the Best Decision on Psych Up Live

Kid with paper doll family photo available from Shutterstock