How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce

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Divorce sucks.

Actually, it’s worse than that. It is a devastating, excoriating experience that takes years to recover from. It leaves a bitter taste behind and this horrible, inexorable feeling of failing but also of being failed.

But the worst part? It’s having your kids go through it too, because the ripple effect of divorce touches everything and everyone in its path, leaving pain, anxiety, and guilt in its wake.

Did we mention divorce sucks?

For all those parents going through it, we want you to know a few universal truths.

You are not a failure.

You are not a bad parent.

Everything is going to be alright.

You are going to be alright.

Don’t quite believe us? Well believe this: “Research shows that it’s much more detrimental for a child to grow up in a house with marital conflict than it is for a child to grow up in two households with parents that are divorced but much happier,” says Dr. Sara Rasmi, a professor and psychologist specializing in parenting and family relationships at Thrive Dubai.

Kids do better when they are in a happier home. Nowadays, however, we have a tendency to bubble wrap our kids to protect them from any rejection or failure, Dr. Rasmi asserts. By doing that, we are robbing them of the ability to develop thick skin and resilience of their own, which they will ultimately need in their own life. “A grit and growth mindset is important,” she says. Staying in an unhappy marriage teaches your kids the wrong things about love. So, stop with the defeatist attitude already. You haven’t failed your kids. In fact, they may just be better people for it.

Having said that, there is no divorce without a few hiccups (or giant crates, in some unfortunate cases). Goodness is here to help you get your family through it relatively unscathed.

Step 1: Keep the Peace

“The relative willingness and ability of the parent to continue healthy, positive, adaptive, and consistent care for their children by holding their best interests at heart can largely act as a protective factor,” says Dr. Regan Haswell, who specializes in psychological adjustment to a wide range of life stressors at The Psychology Center in Dubai. “The more parents set aside their acrimony and transition to an amicable, post-divorce relationship, especially with the day-to-day parenting and childcare details, the greater the psychological gains for everyone.”

The first step is to realize that, essentially, it’s not about getting divorced as much as it’s about how you go about the divorce. The more a divorce is arduous and ugly, the harder it is for everyone involved (including your children) to recover from it. In the long run, you have to understand that you’re not doing anyone any favors (least of all yourself) by holding on to bitterness or grudges.

“Divorce doesn’t mean things are going to be terrible,” says Dr. Rasmi. “The factors to look for are the relationship the child has with their parent and the one the parents have with one another.”

Let’s talk about your relationship with your soon-to-be (or current) ex. How is it? Do you make passive-aggressive comments to each other in front of the kids? Do you try to one-up the other when you’ve got the kids staying with you? Do you use your kids to get back at your ex? Children, from a very young age, pick up on tension and little nuances between their parents’ interactions. Even if a child doesn’t understand what you are saying, they can feel whether it’s positive or negative based on the tone of your voice and your facial expressions and mannerisms.

Yes, divorce can sometimes undermine any positivity or stock you put on the years you had together. Yes, it takes work to avoid highlighting your ex’s mistakes when they are at fault. But without a ceasefire, you can’t have a harmonious environment.

According to Dr. Haswell, a really useful strategy to guage your behavior is to frequently ask yourself, “Is this positive or helpful for me and/or my children?” If the answer is no, then use this feedback to consider proceeding in an alternative direction or course of action or compromise that will positively impact your children.

Step 2: Don’t Put the Kids in the Middle

“It’s important to remember that, a lot of the time, whether we mean it to happen or not, kids feel like they are caught in the middle. So, we want to be really careful that we don’t badmouth the other parent in front of the children. That doesn’t mean we have to sugarcoat things or lavish the other parent in praise, but we shouldn’t badmouth them or make aggressive or passive-aggressive comments. Otherwise we don’t move forward,” says Dr. Rasmi.

She stresses on the importance of treating your ex fairly and with respect. “It is really, really important to respect your ex’s time. That includes not to be late in dropping off the kids or messing up with the date or time you agreed upon. It’s best to stick to consistent timings especially in the beginning. This gives kids a sense of control and security and helps them through a difficult time.” Another thing she stresses is the importance of not using the kids as pawns to get back at your ex. “Most couples get annoyed with each other so they might not tell the other about significant events – like a kid’s recital or football match. Sometimes, the custodian, out of spite, will not share information with the other parent or, if the other parent is traveling, not share pictures, videos, and the like. I would recommend against that. We want to be as collaborative and on the same page as possible.”

Step 3: Adopt an "All For One” Mentality

According to Dr. Rasmi, being on the same page is central when it comes to talking to your kids about divorce. First though, you need to have a conversation about the conversation.

Parents have to decide together how things are going to move forward, then work on aligning – by recognizing that the common goal is to raise happy, healthy kids, regardless of your feelings about each other – before having the talk with the kids.

“I constantly remind newly separated and newly divorced parents that their number one goal is their children and that is something they have in common. We have the tendency when we have conflict with someone to highlight and magnify our differences and often we lose sight of the common goal. And that is the kids. Everybody wants what’s best for the kids. So, having a discussion and aligning and having that discussion many times over the years is definitely something good to do,” Dr. Rasmi says.

The second step is presenting a united front. This is why the talk with the children is best done with both parents present. That way, the child understands that, when it comes to their kids, parents will always set aside their differences and come together.

Step 4: Keep Talking, Keep Parenting

There is no sugar-coating it: Children are psychologically impacted by divorce. The good news is that a lot of their adaption is based on factors such as their age and development, the circumstances leading to the divorce or separation, and the ability of the parent to parent well while this is all going on.

“When telling your kids about an impending divorce, give only the details that are age-appropriate but still within your comfort level. Get straight to the point. Be accurate but use simple language. Keep things fairly consistent. In your conversations, you can talk about the things that will change – the logistical and practical changes. ‘Yes, we are moving,’ or ‘You’ll be with daddy sometimes’,” says Dr. Rasmi. According to her, it’s important to keep hammering the message that change will be best for the whole family. “We shouldn’t make anecdotes or statements to try and make them feel better, like ‘It’s okay, everything will be alright’ to try and alleviate their concerns. We want them to know it’s okay to have the big feelings that they’re having and that, no matter what, you’re here and you’re supporting and listening.”

Dr. Rasmi and Dr. Haswell are very big on listening. The truth is that sometimes we all just want to vent. Or feel hurt. Or be angry. Kids are no different in that regard. They just want to be understood. Especially if they are too young to properly communicate what they are feeling. This is why listening and vigilantly watching changes in their behavior is key.

Children from divorced families can feel a heightened range of emotions (such as anger, sadness, worry, shame, blame, rejection, and feelings of being abandoned or unloved) and these feelings are sometimes displayed in extreme forms, Dr. Haswell explains. On the flip side, some children internalize their feelings. They have bad dreams, are more socially withdrawn, and constantly worry. Others externalize; they demonstrate bad behavior, get into fights, are disrespectful in the way they speak, and are generally difficult to handle.

The best way to deal with these behavioral and emotional changes is by continuing to parent and continuing to talk and allow your children the opportunity to engage and communicate with you their feelings at any given time.

“It is essential that parents provide a safe forum for ongoing and open communication around how the family unit is changing, what the plans are going forward as much as possible, and, where appropriate, to encourage children to speak when they are struggling,” Dr. Haswell says. “Children really do tend to fare better when both parents continue civil communication, align their core family values even in separate households, and parent ‘on the same page’ in terms of rule setting, consistency, boundaries, rewards, privileges, and consequences.”

Step 5: Forgive Yourself

Divorce wrecks the strongest and most grounded of people. It takes its toll, which means that sometimes you make parenting mistakes. Maybe you’re a little short tempered; perhaps you didn’t deal with a certain situation the right way. Don’t be too hard on yourself. “You need to allow room for mistakes that, upon self-reflection, you could have done differently in relation to your child. Troubleshoot to repair/restore the mistake and strengthen the bond with your child and try again tomorrow,” Dr. Haswell says. It’s just that simple.

As a newly single parent, the pressure to get your kids through divorce oftentimes means you’ve neglected your own wellbeing. You think it doesn’t matter. You think you’ll take care of you later. And while it is okay to not be okay, eventually you need to give yourself the space to heal. With time and self-care come introspection and acceptance. Besides, there are worse things in life – after all, nobody ever dies from divorce. On bad days, that’s all you need to remember.