Client Compass, Divorce Law Monitor

How to Discuss Divorce with Young Children (a Divorce Lawyer’s Perspective)

November 15, 2023


In many divorces, emotions run high, resulting in hurtful comments, emotional pain, and anger toward the other spouse. For spouses with young children, it can be hard to keep those emotions in check in the presence of the children, particularly when you first discuss the divorce with them, at parenting exchanges, or if the children ask questions about what is going on:

  • Why are their parents arguing?
  • Why are their parents not living together anymore?
  • Why does the child only see one parent for a weeknight dinner visit and alternate weekends?

It is imperative for divorcing spouses with young children to carefully consider how to discuss divorce with their children, how to respond to their questions about divorce, and how to comport themselves at parenting exchanges. Too much information about adult issues, disparaging comments about a child’s other parent, or evident anger toward the other parent can be harmful to the child’s development and mental health, with significant long-term effects. They can also harm your case in front of the judge, particularly your position on parenting issues, including legal and physical custody and the parenting plan.

Keep in mind that if your child is in preschool, he or she is highly dependent on you and has a limited ability to understand cause and effect or to think ahead to what can or may happen in the future. A preschooler’s understanding of the world revolves around herself, and the line between reality and imagination or fantasy may be blurred. A preschooler may have some ability to think about her and others’ feelings, but she has little capability of discussing her feelings. If your child is a young elementary-school-aged child, she may have a little more ability to think and talk about her feelings and a broader understanding of what is going on in the world around her, but she still has a limited ability to understand complex situations such as divorce.

Keep Your Emotions in Check

Your young children are experiencing a whirlwind of emotions as they see their parents argue or prepare to separate or as they experience other changes to their family situation and day-to-day routine. They may feel sadness, anger, and confusion. Your calm demeanor and tone of voice will help them process their own emotions and prevent them from being burdened by yours.

Timing is Important

Be mindful of timing when you speak with your young children about divorce. Choose a time when you will be available to spend time with your children to help them process their emotions and answer their questions, such as a weekend. Avoid having this conversation on a holiday or other significant day, such as a birthday, or just before school or bedtime. Also, choose a time when all of your children are available to discuss the divorce together as a family – your children need to hear about this from you, not from their siblings. Ideally, you and your spouse should speak with the children together. If this does not seem possible for you, consider engaging a counselor or mediator to help you and your spouse discuss and plan to sit down as a family to discuss the divorce with the children.

Explain What Divorce Means to Your Children, Clearly and Simply

Your explanation of “divorce” and what it means should be age-appropriate, clear, and simple in order for your young children to understand. Do not include any messy details, as young children may blame themselves, think that they are the cause of their parents’ divorce, or think that there is a problem that they can fix and prevent the divorce from happening. It is inappropriate to provide your children with significant details beyond the fact that you will be separating and/or divorcing, what that means, and what will (and will not) change as a result.

Explain, calmly and gently, that you have both decided that you will not live together anymore, that you will live in different houses, but that your children will see you both regularly and that you still love your children very much. It may also be helpful to point out that you and your spouse will both be happier. Ensure your children know they are safe and secure, and explain clearly how the divorce will (and will not) affect their lives. For example, it will mean that you and your spouse no longer live together but that you and your spouse will still see the children regularly, and the children will continue to go to the same school, have the same friends, and attend the same activities (or, explain that they will move to a different school and positively message this change if that is the case).

Young children also need reassurance regarding their specific routines. For example, explain to them that they will be spending tonight at daddy’s house, they will bring their favorite stuffed animal and have dinner with daddy, and then mommy will pick them up in the morning after they wake up and get dressed at daddy’s house.

Do Not Assign Blame or Disparage Your Spouse

Even if you feel that the divorce is your spouse’s “fault” because they had an affair, announced their intention to end the marriage to you, or even walked out on you, do not share this with your young children. Your children don’t need to understand the “truth” of why the marriage is ending. If you share this type of information about adult problems with them, they will feel caught in the middle, which is unhealthy for their social and emotional development, as well as their attachment with their other parent.

The most important thing is to assure your children that they are not to blame, but blaming your spouse is also detrimental to your children. Instead, be careful not to assign blame to anyone. Use the word “we” and say, for example, “We’re not getting along anymore, and we’ve tried to work it out, but we can’t,” or “We hoped this wouldn’t happen, but we can’t fix our relationship,” or “We like each other, and we want to be friends, but we don’t love each other anymore and are going to live in different homes.” The reasons for your divorce are adult problems not ones your children can understand. You should not share information with them to provide a “full” explanation or otherwise try to get them to understand what happened in their parents’ marriage.

Do not use language that disparages your spouse in front of your children. For young children (and even older children), this can result in long-term negative effects on their social and emotional development and mental health. Find a trusted friend or family, or a counselor or therapist, to work through your negative feelings about your spouse.

Listen to Your Children’s Reactions

Separation and divorce are fundamental changes to your young children’s lives. Listen to their reactions and validate their feelings surrounding the news of your divorce and any subsequent discussions you have with them about the divorce. Let them know it is okay for them to feel sad, upset, angry, and confused. Acknowledge your children’s feelings, and be clear that you can handle all the significant and often negative feelings they will be experiencing.

Address Your Children’s Concerns and Reassure Them

Young children may respond with worries that they will be abandoned, left behind, or be “divorced” by a parent themselves. Reassure them that, even though you and your spouse won’t be living in the same house, you will always love them and take care of them, and that their parents no longer living together or loving one another does not in any way change how much their parents love them.

Young children may also respond that they would prefer their parents to stay together or, if their parents have already separated, to get back together. If there’s no chance of reconciliation, be clear with your children about this, letting them know that things will change in your family and won’t change back to the way they were, but that you love them and nothing could ever change that. Even if you harbor hope of reconciling with your spouse, you should not share this with your children, as this will likely cause them confusion and anxiety.

Don’t Discuss Divorce Inappropriately with Your Children – It May Harm Them (and Your Legal Position)

The most significant impact on your children of any inappropriate discussions regarding divorce or your spouse is that on your children, which can include significant negative effects on their social and psychological development, as well as on their mental health. Another impact, however, is on your position before the Court on legal and custodial issues. Judges in the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, in particular, are highly focused on the effects of divorce on children and are keenly aware of their role in protecting children during the divorce process. If your case involves contested litigation and you are appearing in front of a judge, your inappropriate communications with your children may suggest to the judge that you should have less parenting time because you will likely be exposing the children to comments or information that are contrary to their mental health and development. Think carefully before you discuss divorce with your young children, and do not hesitate to speak with an experienced divorce attorney or mental health professional regarding these important conversations.

Further Reading for Adults:

Talking to Children about Divorce, by Jean McBride, MS, LMFT (Althea Press)

Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child, by Isolina Ricci, Ph.D. (Touchstone Books)

The Co-Parenting Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted and Resilient Kids from Little Ones to Young Adults through Divorce or Separation, by Karen Bonnell (Sasquatch Books)

 Further Reading for Children:

Two Homes, by Claire Masurel and Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick Press)

Dinosaurs Divorce, by Marc Brown and Laurie Krasny Brown (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

Lou Caribou: Weekdays With Mom, Weekends With Dad, by Marie-Sabine Roger and Nathalie Choux (Little Gestalten Press)

Tadpoles, by Matt James (Neal Porter Books)

Tuesday is Daddy’s Day, Elliot Kreloff (Holiday House Publishing)

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