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Children and Divorce: How to Tell Your Kids in an Age-Appropriate Way

children and divorce

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Research suggests that children can recover from divorce within about two years of it occurring, but part of this is up to the parents. Children who have understanding and empathetic parents who make the process easier will likely recover faster.

Managing both children and divorce is a challenge. You, as a parent, are going through one of the toughest breakups of your life, but you still need to prioritize your child’s wellbeing.

We’re here to talk about how you can explain divorce to your child(ren) in an age-appropriate way. Read on to learn more.

First: Recognize Feelings, Issues, and Needs for Each Age Category

It’s clear that talking to a two-year-old about divorce will be different from talking to a sixteen-year-old about divorce. The divorce will have a profoundly different impact.

With that in mind, all children are different. While we can give you a general idea of how to approach a child of a certain age when it’s time to talk about divorce, we don’t know the maturity level or emotional stability of your specific child.

In other words, age isn’t the only factor. That said, here are some things to consider when you’re discussing divorce with children of different ages. 

Ages 0 to 5

Children under the age of 1 won’t be aware of the divorce, but that doesn’t mean that divorce doesn’t affect them. They can still end up with trauma due to the parental split.

Toddlers can’t understand their feelings or the world around them. They’re self-centered and have no concept of the future. This makes divorce stressful for them. 

With children this young, you want to keep everything as normal as possible. Do not stray from routines while the divorce happens. Anticipate a lot of questions as these children are in the “why” stage.

Ages 6 to 10

At this age, children have a greater understanding of the world around them. They also understand their feelings (or at least they’re starting to) and they can name and explain those feelings.

They often have a hard time understanding nuance. They will assign blame to one parent or the other. It’s important to be clear in your explanation. 

Focus on helping your child express their feelings. 

Ages 11 to 14

In the late pre-teen and early teen years, your child will already know what divorce is. They likely have friends with divorced parents and it’s not a foreign concept.

These children may try to hide or stifle feelings. They’re going through puberty and already handling complex feelings and confusing changes.

These children may misbehave during the divorce process. They’re reaching out for attention. Keep an open line of communication and prepare for rebellion. 

15 and Up

The relationship between teens and even adult children and divorce is complicated. These “kids” are old enough to know that divorce has nothing to do with them, they can voice their opinions, and they have other support networks, but divorce is still traumatic.

Make space for these older children even if they say they don’t need it. Try not to put too much responsibility on them. 

Do It Together If Possible

You and your co-parent should talk to your child(ren) together. Make sure you do it at the right time. Your child should be calm and content.

You also shouldn’t do it too far ahead of time. You don’t want to sneak up on your child and tell them right before one parent moves out, but you also don’t want to give them too much time to worry. A few weeks is good. 

Coming in together will help you avoid your child placing blame on either parent. It will also show your child that you’re still a family. 

Let Them Know It’s Not Their Fault

Make it clear to your child, regardless of their age, that the divorce is not their fault. Young children may blame themselves, even if adults know that’s not rational. Your child may put themselves on their best behavior, make gifts, or do other “favors” to prevent the divorce from happening. 

You need your child to know that divorce is between you and the other parent. However, don’t blame the other parent (at least out loud). Remember, it’s best if the child has a relationship with both of their parents post-divorce.

Be Honest, But Not Too Honest

Children crave and deserve honest answers. Try not to lie to your child about why the divorce is happening unless it’s absolutely necessary. You can embellish the truth to make it more age-appropriate, but don’t hide it.

Keep it as simple as possible. Younger children may get frustrated with a simple answer, but they’ll accept it. You can elaborate for older children and adults but spare the unnecessary details. 

There will be some things you won’t want to share with your child (such as infidelity, for example). Instead of lying, leave that information out until later. 

Look Toward the Future

Divorce is scary for children because they don’t know what’s coming next. This is especially true for younger children who don’t yet have a strong concept of what the future is. 

Tell your child about all of the things that will stay the same. You’ll still love them, you’ll still spend time together, you’ll still show up to their school events, and so on.

Then, tell them what’s changing. Be clear and direct.

Who (if anyone) is staying in the house? Where will the child live? How often will they see each parent?

If you don’t know all of the answers yet, that’s okay. Let your child know that you’re figuring it out and that you’ll find the best options together. 

Children and Divorce: The Hard Conversation

When you combine children and divorce, you’re in for a difficult challenge. Without children, you only have to consider your own feelings. With children, you’re responsible for a whole other person, and what you do can have a lifelong impact.

When you talk about divorce with your kid(s), be gentle. Remember that this is a huge change for them regardless of how old they are. It’s sure to be scary, but you can get through it together.

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