Children of Divorce: Breaking the news to your children

Divorce – Breaking the news to your children – Second in our series “Helping Children through Divorce” where we are exploring how to help children through their parents’ divorce.

Divorce - Breaking the news to your children

There is never a good time to break the news of your intentions to divorce to children.  But there are better ways to do it to reduce the burden on them.  Telling the children is probably the thing that most people dread the most.  This could be due to the fear of their reaction or that explaining your separation makes the situation more real.

Tips for breaking the news

Your children’s needs will depend upon their age and development, but the following advice for breaking the news of your divorce maybe helpful:

  • It’s a good idea to tell ALL your children at once with both parents present
  • Don’t go into details the children don’t need to know, such as information about affairs.
  • Use language the children will understand.
  • Reassure your children that it’s OK to be upset.
  • Let them know you both still love them and your separation is not their fault.
  • Describe how your children’s world will change from their point of view, e.g. “Daddy will still pick you up from school but won’t be here to put you to bed.”
  • Let them know they can talk to you again any time they want to, or ask questions at a later time.

How you break the news will depend on the age and development of your children.  Problems may arise when you have children of a wide age range.  Explaining the basics first to all children in words the youngest can understand is a good way to start.  Going into more detail with older children after the initial explanation.

Whatever their age, it is strongly recommended for you and your partner to put their differences aside and tell all the children together.  That way, they will all feel that secrets are not being kept from them, as they have all been told the same thing.  Have a plan for how you tell the children. If you can, discuss this with your partner before telling the children.  It maybe that the one leaving the family home makes the initial statement and the other answers any questions.  Presenting a joint front for one last time will serve you well in the future.

What to tell children

Basically, children will want to know 2 things:

  • What is happening?
  • Why is it happening?

The first question is quite easy to answer, but you do need to know in your own mind what will happen and how it will involve the children.  The second question is the harder of the two.  Its always best to tell the truth, and not make up a story.  Children will have often suspected something is wrong before you tell them.  What you tell them is age-dependent, and how you tell them is very important.  Try not to be too emotional whilst telling them.

Things to consider for 0 – 5 Year-olds

With limited cognitive ability, three- and four-year-olds can develop inaccurate ideas about the causes and effect of divorce.  They can easily misunderstand Dad is leaving Mum, instead of thinking Dad is leaving me.  So careful language is needed to ensure the child fully understands.

What to watch for: Signs of distress in preschoolers include fear, anger or emotional instability, which may be expressed indirectly through clinginess, anxiety, whininess or general irritability. Preschoolers may also lose ground in their development. Toddlers who were sleeping through the night might start waking up more often.

Things to consider for 6 – 11 Year-olds

Children of this age are more developed to understand, think and talk about feelings and circumstances related to divorce.  Relationships outside the family (friends, teachers, coaches) are more developed and become a greater influence. They also tend to see things in black and white and may even assign blame for the split.

School-aged children may show their distress as fear, anxiety, anger or sadness, and some display more clear-cut signs of missing their absent parent. Some may have fantasies about reconciliation and wonder what they can do to make that happen. Children who think that they might be able to bring their parents back together, or that they somehow contributed to the divorce, will have trouble getting on with the healing process. So they need to understand that those are adult decisions which they didn’t cause and can’t influence.

Things to consider for 12 – 16 Year-olds

Children of this age have a greater capacity to understand issues related to divorce and can take part in discussions and ask questions to increase their understanding. They have a desire for more independence as well as the questioning of parental authority.  Relationships outside the family are increasingly important, mostly with people of their own age.

Irritability and anger are common, at both parents or the one who moved out. However, it can be hard to gauge how much of a young teen’s moodiness is related to the divorce.


If you can, it is best to plan with your partner how and when you will tell the children about your divorce.  Tell all of your children together with both parents present, to prevent the idea of secrets being held. Give your children plenty of reassurance, and ensure they know they are and will continually be loved despite you living apart.

For more advice and help on this topic, Contact us on 0800 177 7702

For general advice on how to split amicably, click here

Related Posts

Children of Divorce: What family life means to children

Children of Divorce: Making children feel secure

Children of Divorce: Things to watch out for

Children of Divorce: Children’s changing needs

Children of Divorce: Breaking the news to your children was last modified: November 1st, 2018 by Carol Sullivan

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