There is no shortage of difficult and even painful conversations we may need to have with our kids throughout their childhood. But telling them their parents are divorcing, changing forever the very structure of their family and their lives, has to be one of the hardest. Depending on their age, the messaging in those conversations will evolve, and the behaviours they may display that indicate they’re in distress will look different.
But Dr. Joanna Stern, a senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says that although the way you talk to kids about a divorce will change and get more nuanced as they get older, all kids need to feel or hear reassurance that they are going to be cared for and supported during and after the process.
“What they really want to communicate to kids of all ages is, ‘We’ve got you,’” Sterns says. “‘Your needs are going to be taken care of regardless of what is happening with us and with the divorce.’”
And just as important, Stern says, is to remember what not to say — namely, don’t bad-mouth the other parent, even in subtle ways and even with the youngest of kids.
So let’s start there — with babies and toddlers.
Babies and toddlers
Obviously, there’s very little a parent can or should do by way of explaining a divorce to a child who isn’t yet verbal. A young toddler, though, is likely to require some kind of explanation if you’re divorcing and one parent is moving out.
The trick with a young toddler, Stern says, is to keep the message simplistic, fact-based, and neutral — and then repeat, repeat, repeat. Much in the same way toddlers like to read the same book or watch the same video over and over, the repetition helps them internalize the message. In practice, that might sound something like, “Daddy is going to live in a different house, and you’ll be able to visit him there.” And then when they ask where Daddy is, you reinforce with, “Daddy is in a different house now, remember? You’ll go visit Daddy at the new house soon.”
For kids this young, you get the “we’ve got you” message across by showing rather than telling. Keep meeting all their needs as consistently as you always have so they continue to feel that sense of safety and security.
Also, Stern cautions that babies and toddlers will pick up on the negative things you say about the other person through your tone, micro facial expressions, and body language — even if you think you’re masking it. So if you say something like, “Well, isn’t he such a wonderful father,” with a bright voice and fake, plastic smile, your little one is probably going to know there’s something not quite right about that.
“You don’t need to have a verbal comprehension of what’s going on to have your B.S. detector go off and say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ or ‘I don’t feel safe’ because something’s not adding up here,” she says.
With preschool-aged kids, you should do all of the things you’d do with toddlers while building upon the messaging a bit more, Stern says. The important thing to stress at this age (and every subsequent age) is that both of their parents love them very much, and that the divorce is about the grown-ups, and definitely not because of the kids.
“Keep reiterating, ‘We love you, and we’re both going to take care of you, it’s just going to look a little bit different now,’” she says. “‘This parent is going to be doing it from this house, and that parent is going to be doing it from that house.’ And then open it up for questions.”
Distress in kids this age typically shows up through sleep disturbances or other developmental regressions, such as suddenly having more potty accidents. These are all normal hallmarks of a young child going through a major life transition, Stern says — you often see similar behaviours after a big move or when a baby sibling comes home. When you might start to get concerned is if your previously very chatty kid who asked a ton of questions isn’t talking about the change at all.
“That can be a sign that it is so distressing to them that they just sort of shut that piece of information out of their mind,” Stern says. “Then it is up to the parent to say, ‘Do you remember where Mummy is?’ or ‘Do you remember where Daddy is?’ Not rubbing their nose in it, but just very gently and matter-of-factly pointing out what the reality is.”
Early elementary ages
With kids in the six- to eight-year-old age range, it’s important to first acknowledge that they probably know more than you think they know. Kids this age are astute observers of those around them, and if you’ve been arguing a lot recently — even if you think you’ve done it in hushed voices behind closed doors — chances are good they’ve picked up on it. So Stern says that’s where you should start the conversation.
“I think it’s really validating for kids of that age to start with saying, ‘You might have noticed that such-and-such has been different around here,’” she says, whether that’s an increase in arguments, or that one parent hasn’t been home as much as usual. “Anything that you’re feeling, chances are they’ve picked up on it, but they may not have known to ask about it.”
When it comes to the language you should use, Stern advises that really depends on your specific child, and how developed their verbal expression and comprehension skills are. Some kids might still benefit from very simple language during these years, while a child who is more verbal and has a wider vocabulary can probably handle a more nuanced explanation with bigger words.
Signs at this age that the child is in too much distress are, again, that they’re either not talking about it or have sort of blown it off as not being a big deal.
“The worry there would be that they’ve internalized what’s happened and that they’re having a whole internal explanation going on in their minds that they may not be sharing with you of what the cause of this is,” Stern says. “And the worry would always be that they think they could be the cause.”
As we continue to build upon the depth of this conversation with each subsequent age, parents can become a little more forthcoming about the whys of the divorce with preteens. Not that you’re going to give them the full play-by-play of your conflicts, but many kids this age who are emotionally sensitive are able to understand that adult relationships can be complicated.
You can talk with preteens about how it has become harder for the adults to live together, and because you each want the other to be the happiest, best version of yourselves, you think it’s better for everyone — including the kids — to live in separate homes.
“The message is that two households with happy parents are probably going to be a better fit for the family than one household where the parents are together and unhappy,” Stern says.
Concerning behaviours to watch for that might indicate your preteen is struggling are basically any departures from their usual behavioural baseline. A chatty kid who used to talk your ear off after school and who now withdraws straight to their bedroom, for example, might be struggling. But, as Stern points out, everybody has off days, so a couple of bad days are likely simply indicative of them processing what’s happening, as any of us would. If it lasts for a week or two, though, it’s time to check in and see how they’re feeling.
Teenagers can benefit from much of the previous advice for older kids and preteens. But for parents of teens, a divorce is also a time to model all the emotions you’re likely working through — anger, grief, sadness, disappointment — without falling apart. Getting emotional about what is happening but remaining in control, and allowing them to see some of that, can help model healthy ways to work through tough emotions.
“It’s a big thing that’s happening, and it subtly communicates in a nonverbal way that there is a gravity to the situation, and that’s not lost on you,” Stern says. “It’s like, ‘I’m your parent, but I’m also a human being.’”
For kids of all ages, Stern has a couple of other bits of advice. Make sure they know the divorce is not a secret — it might be obvious to you that people outside the family unit can, will, and should find out about it, but a child in the early elementary or pre-teen age groups might not be too sure.
Also, if you have more than one child, you may want to have a family meeting to make the initial announcement, depending on the ages of the kids. But you should still make sure to follow up with individual conversations, especially with older kids who may need more information than their younger siblings or who might have more in-depth questions to ask.