How to explain divorce to children

For children to hear that their parents are filing for a divorce is a very traumatic experience. Children often do not understand exactly what divorce means. It is important to give them a clear understanding of what is happening but to make the conversation age-appropriate and to talk to them on their level.  

Remember, when parents divorce the child’s whole life changes. Try to put yourself in his or her little world and imagine how it would feel without an understanding of adult experiences. As adults we can never truly understand what children are going through when hearing such news. It depends on the child, his or her personality and the context of the family dynamics and situation.  

Just as parents need closure regarding a divorce, so do the children. It is so important that parents put their differences aside when it comes to telling their children about the divorce, as this can set the foundation for them to be well-adjusted children from a divorced family.  Talking to your children

Make your children the focus of the discussion and place the divorce in a secondary position. Keep the following structure in mind for a discussion:
  • Both parents (preferably) and the children need to have the discussion together to prevent any miscommunication.
  • Sit together with the children in a safe place, such as the lounge or at the dining room table.
  • Make the environment as comfortable as possible, but with minimal objects that can distract.  
  • Open the conversation by saying,  ‘Mommy and Daddy want to talk to you about something very  important.’
  • Don’t keep the children guessing; begin ‘the talk’ immediately and tell them that you (mom and dad) have decided to get a divorce.  
  • Ask the children if they understand what divorce means.  
  • Interpret what they are saying and correct their definition by paraphrasing their ideas with the real definition of divorce.
  • Explain that divorce is normally a sad thing that happens in marriages when moms and dads decide to live in different houses.  

Make it clear that
  • Mom and Dad are definitely getting a divorce (don’t make confusing statements that may give the children false hope).
  • They are definitely not the reason for the decision to divorce.
  • Adults have specific reasons for divorcing that cannot be discussed with children (be firm and set boundaries if they start probing), but give them some general reasons why parents may get divorced, for instance:- we don't love each other anymore,- we argue too much and it isn't good for children to hear their parents fighting so much when growing up,- we are unhappy and it is important to be happy,- we have grown apart and don’t like doing things together any longer.
  • Discourage any discussion of inappropriate topics in front of the children.  
  • If you, as parents, do give your children a reason for the divorce, it should be true. At the same time it should not traumatise the children even further at such a difficult time; for example do not say:- your father had an affair and I hate him,- your mother wants to leave us because she doesn’t love us any more,- your father only thinks about himself and his new girlfriend,- if we stay married we are going to kill each other.  
  • There are going to be a few changes in all of your lives and that you will discuss those changes with them once you are sure what those changes will be.
  • Don’t go into specifics about the administration of the divorce if you have not discussed them with your partner.  
  • Focus on the emotions of the children: how they are feeling or reacting and what you can do to make it a bit easier for them.
  • It is important to discuss matters such as residential plans, access arrangements, their rooms and their new home or homes, in order to reduce the natural uncertainty children experience in these circumstances.

Think before you speak. Is what you want to say going to help the child with closure, or is just for you to have a dig at your ex? Are you saying this out of resentment, or will it be constructive in helping your child?  

How did you break the news of your divorce to your children? Would you rather do it differently?

This is an extract from Divorce; What about the children? (Struik Lifestyle), available from at R111,96.

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