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Children's Health

Kids Coping With Divorce

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Conversations to Help Kids Cope With Divorce

How you tell children about an impending divorce will have a lot to do with your child's age, your living situation, and the degree of tension between you and your ex.

If you have older children, give them some time to get used to the news by talking to them at least a month before you and your ex begin living apart. If your child is a toddler, you can wait to talk until a week or so before any big changes, since kids this age have little sense of time. Even very young children will be reassured if you acknowledge the upcoming change, even if they can't yet understand the precise meaning of your words.

Nine Guidelines for Talking With Kids About Divorce

  • If at all possible, have both parents present for the discussion.
  • Timing is key. Pick a relaxed time of day, when there are no impending commitments.
  • Use simple language, and don't talk on and on. For example: "Your father and I have grown apart. We care about each other, but we don't want to be married anymore."
  • Acknowledge that it's a sad situation and that your child is likely to experience big, painful feelings. Allow your child to cry, become angry, or have other natural reactions.
  • Let kids know that you also feel sad. At the same time, reassure them that you and your ex-partner love them and will keep them safe, whether you're together or not.
  • Children often feel responsible or blame themselves when their parents break up, so reassure your children that the divorce is not their fault.
  • Give concrete details, if you can, about the new living arrangement. For example: "You'll be living with me every other weekend."
  • Avoid blaming the other parent. Even if the break-up was triggered by one partner's affair or a substance abuse problem, this isn't the time to share adult problems with a child. Perhaps later, when kids are in their teenage years, you may want to share more information.

Try to answer all of your children's questions, and encourage them to keep asking questions in the days and weeks to come. Children younger than 8 tend to ask questions in a series. Answer each question, one at a time. Don't suggest more, or go on and on -- keep it simple and concrete. Then wait for the next question and answer that one.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on June 23, 2013
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