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Telling Children About the Divorce

by Charles F. Vuotto Jr. and Carly DeCotis


As family lawyers, we are not only required to know and understand family law, but also, to some degree, the emotional and psychological issues at play. This obligation becomes more necessary when dealing with children impacted by divorce. We often first meet our clients when they are on the verge of deciding whether to proceed with a divorce. They are uncertain about proceeding with such a highly disruptive decision. As such, although they may have their suspicions, it is usually the case that the children do not know that a divorce is in their future. In such situations, we, as divorce attorneys, are very often asked (or should be able to advise to some degree) about how to correctly proceed with telling children about an impending divorce in a way that causes the least harm and upset to them.

This column outlines 10 key considerations and suggestions that will help guide the family lawyer when advising a client in this situation.

  1. Speak together. Try to avoid telling the children about the divorce independently. Presenting a united front allows the children to see that you and your co-parent still can and will work together for their best interests.
  2. Consider location, location, location. Try to speak to the children in a quiet and safe place for them.
  3. Explain emotions. Depending upon the age of the children, parents should understand that the children may have a suspicion that something is wrong. They may even think that a divorce is a possibility. Young children may not understand the content of the fighting; however, they can pick up on negative emotions. One negative emotion that is frequently displayed with marital discord is anger. Typically, children view anger as frightening, and don’t understand what is underneath it. Anger is a secondary emotion (e., guilt, shame, disgust, envy) of one of the primary emotions (i.e., fear, sadness, joy, interest, surprise). Fear and sadness are often uncomfortable for people, making them feel vulnerable and often not in control. To avoid uncomfortable feelings, people shift subconsciously into anger mode. Without getting into the substance of the disputes, it is important for parents to explain these emotions to their children, so they can understand why mom is sad or dad is angry, as well as their own emotions. Explain that these emotions are normal, and they should feel free to express them. Research shows children who are taught about emotions from their parents form stronger friendships with other children, can regulate their moods and are able to self-soothe when they are upset.
  4. Show appropriate emotions. It’s ok to cry or get choked up. Some parents try to be ‘strong’ for their children by not showing any emotions while discussing divorce, as a means of protecting them. Unfortunately, it sends a message to the children that it’s not appropriate to be upset about the situation. Children see how their parents display emotion and react to situations and, in turn, they imitate these behaviors.
  5. Use age appropriate terms/explanations to ensure the children understand what is being explained.
    1. Babies and toddlers: Babies and toddlers do not have the ability to understand complex events, anticipate future events or understand feelings.
    2. Preschoolers: Preschoolers need simple, concrete explanations. Stick to the basics: which parent will be moving out, where will the child live, who will look after him or her and how often he or she will see the other parent. Be prepared for questions, and do not expect one conversation to be sufficient; several short talks are more effective.
    3. School aged children (six-11 years of age): School-aged children ages five to eight will not understand the concept of divorce and may feel like their parents are divorcing them. Children ages eight to 11 need reassurance that their parents will not abandon them. With them, it is important to reiterate that the divorce is not their fault. Focusing on stable care and routines are still very important during this time.
    4. Teenagers (12-19): It’s important to be truthful, yet sparse with the details, when discussing divorce with teenagers. Too much detail about the issues that led to the divorce can often be burdensome and lead to anxiety, guilt and worry.
  6. It is imperative parents explain that they tried their best to make the relationship work and fix the issues within the marriage. Parents need to be careful not to say, “we are divorcing because we can’t get along.” This sends a message that relationships can end if people simply not getting along. If this reason is used, the children can have unrealistic expectations regarding relationships. Let them know that this is something that mom and dad have decided to do after a long time of trying to make things work better. Also, they should be told that this is an adult decision and has nothing to do with anything they said or did.
  7. Ask the children what their biggest fears are regarding the divorce. Let the children know you care about their concerns relative to the divorce. However, let them know they can’t change this by being ‘better’ or ‘nicer.’
  8. Explain to the children what is going to happen, when they will see each parent, living arrangements etc. A child’s common worries about divorce could be: If I don’t see my dad or mom, will he or she come back? If I make them upset will they come see me? Let them know that they will continue to see the other parent. If possible, tell them what the plan will be.
  9. Do not make false promises you can’t follow through with just to appease the children. Let them know you will all get through this. However, it’s important to be honest. Honesty is the foundation for a healthy relationship. If they can’t trust their parents, who can they trust?
  10. Don’t make them feel as though they must change how they feel about each parent. Let them know they should continue to love and show affection toward each parent. They should know that doing so will not make them appear disloyal to the other parent.

In addition to the above 10 pointers, there are five more pointers to consider in advance or following the initial discussion with your children.

  1. Advise third parties: It might help to let close family members, healthcare providers and/or teachers know that you will be speaking (or have spoken) to the children about divorce. This may help them deal with the aftermath to the extent they encounter the children.
  2. Be sure to follow up: A few days after you speak to the children, follow up. See how they are doing. See what they understood about what was said to them. Did they get it right? Do they have any misperceptions? If so, correct them. However, don’t hound them about the issue.
  3. Treat your co-parent well: The single most important thing in helping children through divorce is how the parents treat each other (both in and out of the presence of the children). Here are some points to consider:
    1. A custodial parent’s support of the other parent’s involvement is related to positive child outcomes.
    2. Joint caretaking is best when parents cooperate, live in close proximity and there are no issues of abuse.
    3. Mothers and fathers may express their involvement with children differently.
    4. Parents’ adjustment influences their children’s adjustment.
    5. Each parent must assume some of the other parent’s ‘natural style.’ Children need to learn to ‘read’ each parent’s style of nurturing and take comfort from each parent.
    6. Exposure to parental conflict and anger makes children feel insecure. Exposure to parental conflict and anger during transitions makes children feel responsible and guilty. Exposure to parental conflict and anger may be a reason why some studies show harm to children when there are frequent visits in high-conflict families.
    7. Children suffer harm when their parents have poor relationships, regardless of the parenting time arrangements.
  4. Seek assistance: Parents should not hesitate to seek assistance from third parties to help them through this process. It may be limited to family, friends, healthcare providers, teachers or mental health professionals trained in marital disputes and children.
  5. Read: There are many resources on this topic. Parents should be counseled to take advantage of them.


The author wishes to acknowledge the substantial contribution to this column by Carly DeCotis, Licensed Professional Counselor, MA, NCC, LPC, ACS, CCS of Summit, New Jersey.



This article was originally published within the New Jersey Family Lawyer (38 NJFL 6 (December 2019)) and is being republished herein with permission of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

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