How to tell your kids you’re getting a divorce
- Approaching the divorce conversation with your kids is about providing a forum for them to understand what’s happening and to express their feelings.
- Try to be as calm as possible and offer reassurance while being honest, open and clear.
- It’s important to look for signs that your child or teen is not coping and, if necessary, talk to your health professional for further assistance.
Divorce is a highly stressful and emotional time for all involved. Talking with your children about what’s happening is not easy, but it’s a conversation almost half of Australian families will have.
We spoke to the experts for some tips on how to approach telling your kids that you’re getting a divorce. Consultant Psychologist Dr Bec Jackson and GP Dr Jill Gamberg share their advice to help make this conversation go as gently and as smoothly as possible.
How to approach the divorce conversation with your kids
While there may still be grief and loss to process, Dr Bec says managing the initial discussion well may help your children handle the change better.
“Providing a forum for your kids where they can understand what’s happening and allowing them to express their feelings will go a long way in helping them cope with the divorce more broadly,” she says.
Here are Dr Bec’s tips:
1. Be as calm as possible
If you’re worried, angry or upset, it will be harder to communicate the way you want to.
2. Choose the right time and place
Find a setting to talk that’s free from distractions and when your kids are as calm as possible. For example, they may not respond as well if they’re hungry or tired.
3. Offer reassurance
Sometimes children assume that because you’ve changed your mind about your relationship with your partner, that you’ll change how you feel about them too.
4. Be honest, open and clear
Reassure kids about what you “know” will happen, but don't start giving answers to things that are yet to be decided or that you can't promise. For example, telling children “You can come and live with me all the time if you want.”
It’s essential to be as honest and direct with answers as you can possibly be. Children may feel worried or unsafe if they think you’re withholding information or lying.
5. Acknowledge how they feel
Use empathy to reflect back to them about how they’re feeling. Don’t diminish or ignore their feelings.
How to adapt the conversation for different age groups
Dr Bec says the principles above apply to all age groups, but you could adjust your approach depending on your child’s age.
“Talking about emotions and feelings with younger children is particularly helpful, as well as giving lots of reassurance,” says Dr Jill. She also suggests involving younger children in small decisions as a way to help them cope.
“We may think it’s silly to encourage young children to pick the clothes that they want to wear or decide what to have for dinner. But it may give them a little sense of control back in their life,” she advises.
Primary school-aged children
Kids at this age are able to understand the situation better than younger children. But Dr Jill says that your child doesn't need to know all the details of why you and your partner are getting divorced or separated.
“However, kids do have a right to know what's happening and that things are going to be OK. What’s really important is to tell them that it’s not their fault and that things will get better,” she says.
Dr Jill advises trying to keep routines for kids as familiar as possible to help them feel secure and in control. She also recommends letting the school know so they may offer extra support and keep an eye on how your child is coping.
Talking with your teenager about divorce may be daunting given all the emotional changes teens are already facing when puberty starts. But as Dr Jill reminds us, providing reassurance is vital.
“Let teens know that having strong or mixed feelings is normal. Reassure them that what’s happening is not their fault and that they didn’t do anything wrong,” she says.
If you’re moving with the kids after divorce or separation, Dr Jill says teenagers might be worried about where they’ll be living. They might also worry about whether they have a choice in this and whether they’ll lose contact with a parent.
Once again, reassurance is critical, she says.
Caring for your kids and yourself
During such a challenging time, it may be easy to ignore your own health. But it’s essential to try and make healthier choices around eating, exercise, alcohol and drug use.
If needed, be sure to reach out and seek professional support for yourself and your kids.
Dr Jill says that while it’s pretty normal for kids to feel unsettled, it’s important to look for signs that your child or teen is not coping. And if you’re worried, talk to your health professional for further assistance.
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Dr Jill Gamberg is a General Practitioner and one of the first Australian Lifestyle Medicine Physicians whose goal is to help prevent disease and maintain wellness with evidence-based practice, and to passionately improve health literacy.
Dr Bec Jackson is a Consultant Psychologist with 20 years’ experience across clinical psychology, academia, therapy and education in clinical, forensic and organisational psychology.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board September 2021.