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10 Tips for Talking to Kids About Divorce or Separation

Talking to children about divorce is overwhelming. You might choose to work with a professional to develop a personalized plan that meets the needs of your unique family. If this is not possible, or if you want to learn more as you prepare for your appointment, here are 10 Tips for Talking to Kids about Divorce and Separation.


TIP 1: Tell Them Together

Whether you are married or separated, your children need to see you as a parenting team. It can feel impossible to set aside hard feelings when you are grieving the end of a marriage, but it is important to stay focused on something you have in common – your amazing children. If it’s not possible to tell them together, you can work with a professional to develop an alternative plan.

TIP 2: Keep It Short

You get 30-45 seconds to deliver your initial message and then give your kids time to absorb it. Let them know you have decided to divorce, separate or for younger children, “live in two homes”. Provide a general, non-blaming explanation like  “We couldn’t love each other in the way married people need to.” “We want to stop arguing.” “We work better when we’re living in two homes.” Assure them that parents divorce each other but not their children and you both will always love them and take care of them.

You can then share some brief details about what might happen in the near future. “You’ll have two homes now, one with Mommy here at the house, and one with Mama in a new apartment near your school” or “The guinea pig will live at Dad’s new house” or “You’ll still get to play on your soccer team and see all of your friends”.

Reassure your children that even though “a family change like this can be sad and hard, we are all going to be okay”.

TIP 3: Avoid the WHY

Avoid sharing why your marriage ended with your children, especially who decided to leave and why. These are grown-up parent issues. When kids ask why, they often really want to know who to blame and who to take care of. It is your job as parents to make sure they know they don’t have to do either of those things.

Some parents feel dishonest not sharing all the details of the divorce with their kids or not answering all of their questions in full. I assure you, it’s not dishonest to set healthy, developmentally appropriate boundaries. If you do feel compelled to share some of the “why” with your kids, it is a good idea to work with a professional for guidance prior to this conversation.

TIP 4: Practice

Practice can help you send clear messages to your kids in a tone that decreases anxiety. After you have decided on a common narrative together, write down what you want to say and practice saying it. If you have different communication styles, account for that in your planning to make space for both parents to talk. Your tone should let your kids know “We’re going to get through this. We’ve got this. We will be the grown-ups and you get to be kids”.

Of course after all that talk about practice, please know that you do not need perfection. There are three things that matter above all else: 1. Being on the same page  2. Creating the groundwork for open ongoing conversations and  3. Connecting with your kids.

TIP 5: Plan Ahead for Questions

Children need to know they can ask questions openly. They might talk to one parent more than another, and that’s completely normal but they need to know you are both available to them. Brainstorm what questions each child might ask and how you agree to answer them in a developmentally appropriate way. Kids won’t always ask questions right away, so it’s helpful to be prepared for future, impromptu questions.

It’s also okay to say “That’s a great question, we’ll let you know when we have an answer.”

TIP 6: Prepare Yourself Emotionally

Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Do your own emotional work so you can avoid burdening your children with your “stuff”. It’s okay for your children to know you’re sad, but it’s not helpful for them to bear witness to your big feelings about the end of your marriage or their other parent’s behavior.

Avoid putting kids in the caretaker role and instead, take this opportunity to model how to manage emotions appropriately. “We feel sad, too. And we have lots of grown ups (or a great therapist, a professional team) we can talk to to help us get through this. Our family is strong and we can get through hard stuff.”

TIP 7: Listen

Keep the focus on your children and their experiences. Listen to their concerns and hold space for their big feels. Each child will go through their own unique process.You do not need to rescue them from the loss and grief that is an inevitable part of divorce; just be present and supportive and help them maneuver this difficult time in the healthiest way possible.

TIP 8: Minimize Conflict

Conflict between parents is the number one indicator of negative  outcomes for children with divorced parents. If you do nothing else, commit to minimizing conflict so it does not come out in front of or within earshot of your children. Be aware that children also pick up on energy and non-verbal cues. Ask your friends or family members to help hold you accountable.

One parent I worked with was determined not to allow their current anger to impact the kids. So they made a plan to ask close friends for some accountability. First, they were asked to do a “kid check” to ensure no kids were home before discussing the divorce or their co-parent. Next they were asked to only allow angry divorce complaining for 5 minutes, at which time they would change the subject.

If ongoing conflict is a major issue between you, co-parent coaching can be a life-long gift to give your children.

TIP 9: Be Kind

Imagine your child as half you and half your co-parent. When you dismiss or criticize your co-parent, you are dismissing or criticizing half of your child. You don’t have to be friends, but your children will be healthier and happier if you are kind and show each other respect.

TIP 10: Get support if you need it

A family divorce professional such as a family mediator, co-parent coach or child specialist can help you create an initial message or “narrative” that is customized for your family, decide how and when to share it, brainstorm how to answer your children’s questions and help you lay the groundwork for future conversations. They can also help you develop a healthier co-parent relationship in the process.

Remember, these early interactions are chapter one of the story your children will tell about the time their parents divorced. You get to help them write that story.


Meg Merrill is a Family Mediator, Family Transition Specialist and Co-parent Coach and a member of Bridges Collaborative Divorce in Portland, Oregon.


To learn more, contact one of our Professionals at Bridges Collaborative Divorce Solutions.


Meg Merrill, MSW
Family Mediator, Family Transition Specialist and Co-Parent Coach


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