Helping Your Child Cope with an Amicable Divorce

As a parent, how do you tell your child that his or her parents are no longer going to be together? Even if the divorce is a mutual or amicable decision made by you and your partner, it can feel difficult to share this news with your child. Here are 5 guidelines for telling your child about a mutual divorce decision and helping him or her to cope with the changes:

Present a united front. Plan out in advance what you are going to say to your kids about why you are getting divorced, and tell them before any changes take place. Tell the truth, but keep it age appropriate. For example, to a 4-year-old you might say, “We just can’t get along anymore,” and to a 14-year-old you might say, “We used to love each other very much, and we still care about one another, but we just don’t share the same goals in life anymore, and we cannot make it work to be together. We think we will be better people apart, and better parents.” The most important thing is to offer a mutual reason, instead of blaming one parent regardless of the situation; this only hurts your child, because he or she will feel obligated to take sides, or feel guilty for being disloyal.

Pay attention to your child’s reaction and gauge your response accordingly.Your child may react with anger, fear, sadness, confusion or be seemingly unaffected or in a daze. Allow him or her to express these emotions and validate them, while reassuring them that things will be okay, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. Let your child know that you share and understand these emotions, and you are available to listen when he or she needs to express them. You might say, “I know this might seem very confusing and scary for you right now, and I feel scared too, but we’re going to get through this together, and I always want you to let me know how you’re feeling.”

Reassure, reassure, reassure! Continue to emphasize how much you love your kids, and reassure them that the love between parents and children will not change, no matter what the circumstances. Emphasize that you will always be a part of their lives and support them, and then make sure to follow through on this promise with regular visits, phone calls, texts, emails, milestone celebrations, birthdays and holidays. If you disappear from your child’s life, he or she will likely believe that they were at fault for the divorce, which can lead to significant self-esteem problems and psychological struggles. If your child does blame him or herself for the divorce, continuously reassure them that they are not at fault and correct the misunderstanding.

Be transparent in addressing changes. Be honest with your child when discussing the changes that will stem from the divorce. Acknowledge that many things will change, but some things will remain the same. If you and your partner already have some plans in place, be ready to talk about them with your kids right away if they have questions, or wait to discuss them until your kids are ready if they react with intense emotion and need some time to process. Let your children know that they will be kept in the loop about details and changes as things come up, and if possible, give them options to choose from to instill a sense of control over their lives. For example, you could say, “Dad will be living in an apartment a few miles away, and we will stay in this house, and you will visit Dad often. One of us will drive you to school, and the other will pick you up from school – which one of us would you like to drop you off in the morning, and which one would you like to pick you up in the afternoon?”

Build new routines and stick with them. Routines are comforting to people of all ages, especially when experiencing emotional distress. Work with your child to develop new routines and remind them of expectations that are still in place. For example, you may say, “Even though you will go to my house on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, and Mom’s house on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you are still expected to do your homework right after dinner at both homes.” Continue to follow through on the same rules, rewards and consequences that were in place prior to the divorce. Resist the urge to spoil your child with material items or outings, because it will only cause future problems with behavior; instead, spoil him or her with attention, love and quality time as a form of reassurance of unconditional love.



About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.