How to Explain Divorce to Kids

Lisa A. Flam
July 20, 2011

If your family is splitting up, a friend's parents are separating or a celebrity divorce hits the news, here are 12 tips for talking to kids about it.

Jeanne Ward, of Annapolis, Md., remembers when she and her husband sat down with their daughters to tell them they were splitting up. The girls, ages 8 and 10 at time, cried and clung to their parents.

"It was probably the most difficult conversation I'd ever had in my life," says Ward.

Though high-profile splits like the ones between Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries still grab headlines, the U.S. divorce rate has been falling. After climbing in the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of no-fault divorce and the birth control pill, the divorce rate peaked around 1980 and has been dropping ever since, experts say. Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who studies marriage and divorce, estimates that today's divorce rate is about 40 percent.

But kids don't care about numbers and percentages. They only understand that their family is changing -- and change is hard.

Shirley Thomas, child psychologist and author of "Parents Are Forever: a Step-By-Step Guide to Becoming Successful Coparents After Divorce," and Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy.D, well-known psychotherapist, offer these 12 tips for talking to kids about divorce:

  1. Act Like a Team
    Our experts recommend you sit down and tell kids together. Even if only one parent does the talking, it's important to show a united front and that you both emphasize that your love for your kids hasn't changed one bit.

  2. Plan the Discussion
    Before you sit down, prep for how you will tell the kids (together), and anticipate how you'll answer some of their difficult questions.

  3. Stick to the Basics
    If your marriage is ending, experts recommend telling your kids simple facts. You can explain to them that their parents won't be living together anymore, but both still love their children. Talk calmly and try to keep an anger-free tone of voice.

  4. Don't Blame
    Regardless of what happened and why, simplicity is important when first breaking the news -- even if it's not the whole truth. Avoid giving your children sordid details about the reason for a split, like infidelity, mental health problems or alcohol or drug abuse. Parents should choose their words carefully and use neutral, blame-free language, both experts say.

    Because children see themselves as an extension of their parents, blaming one parent is also a put-down to the child, says Thomas. "Your mom and I have decided that we don't love each other the same as we did when you were born and now we're going to live in separate homes," she suggests saying.

    "The key is to focus on the change that's going on," Ludwig says. "The important thing to underscore is that it's not the child's fault, a transition is happening and that their emotional needs will be focused on. Their safety and happiness and the fact they feel loved is a priority."

    If your kids ask why, Thomas says parents can add: "Sometimes adults become unhappy with how they're living their lives and decide they want to live a different way."

  5. Be Age Appropriate
    A 6-year-old is likely to accept your explanation without asking for a detailed reason, Thomas says.

    If a 10-to-12-year-old asks why, Thomas suggests providing a true, but non-blaming reason. If a mother found another partner, she could say: "'I have to move on and do different things with my life'," she recommends. "It's not necessary to be so blunt as to say: 'I've found another person'."

    Teenagers may have figured out the reason for a split or asked for an explanation. Older kids can handle the sometimes-ugly truth, but parents should still take care to "avoid exaggerating the negative aspects of how a spouse has behaved," Thomas says.

  6. Say It's Okay to be Sad
    Parents should let kids know they're there to answer questions, and that it's all right if they're feeling blue. Tell kids: "'We're all feeling sad about this transition, but sometimes difficult decisions need to be made in order to do what's best for family life,'" Ludwig says.

  7. Focus on What Stays the Same
    No matter how old the child is, reinforce how things will be staying normal. A child who is 10 or 11 can understand an explanation like "we're not going to be married, but we're still your parents and we love you," says Thomas.

  8. Stress the Love
    The reason for the conversation is to let your children know what's happening, and to stress that they will still be loved.

    "We both love you and that's going to continue, things may look different, but we'll all get through this," Ludwig urges parents to say.

  9. Give Two Weeks' Notice
    Once plans are made for separate homes, kids should be given about two weeks' notice to process the information, Thomas suggests. And be sure to explain to your children how each parent will be involved in their life.

  10. Use Small Doses
    It may be best to talk to your children several times. Three 10-minute conversations are more effective than one half-hour talk, Thomas says. Once a split happens, there will be constant conversations as children move back and forth between their homes.

    "You have to keep refreshing the reality...that I have two parents with two homes," Thomas says.

  11. Involve the Nanny
    If your child has a nanny, she may be faced with questions from her charges about your split. Talk to your nanny about your plans and how to answer the kids' queries. A nanny or regular babysitter becomes like an aunt or big sister in such a situation, Thomas says, and can help reassure the kids.

    "If they see the nanny being okay with it, they will feel okay with it," she says.

    Ludwig counsels that a nanny should reinforce the parents' words that the children are very much loved. "The nanny should not place any blame and should be supportive of the child," she adds.

  12. Talk About Other Divorces
    If you're happily married and your son or daughter hears about a celebrity split or learns that their best friend's folks are getting divorced, you should address it. You can explain that divorce is something that happens for various reasons to some families, and reassure them that's not happening to theirs, Ludwig explains.

    If they hear you fighting, though, and worry about divorce, Ludwig says, you can tell them that fighting is a natural part of a real relationship and that it doesn't necessarily mean something devastating like divorce will happen to their own family.

    Read more about Fighting in Front of Your Kids and Why You Need to Stop ť

Divorce is not easy on anyone, but if you talk calmly and rationally to kids and reassure them that they are loved, everything will go much more smoothly.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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