How honest should you be with children about divorce?

February 23, 2012

How honest should you be with children about divorce?


As if divorce itself is not hard enough, parents also have to worry about the impact it is going to have on their children’s lives. It’s impossible not to feel guilty about inflicting this huge upheaval on your little ones. But how much do they really need to know about what is actually happening?

When my husband and I decided to divorce, we sat down with the children and told them the news, which was the worst single moment of the whole process. Before we spoke, they belonged to a family of four. Afterwards, they were the shell-shocked children of parents who were officially no longer together.

We decided to be honest with them about the process of divorce, but to draw a veil over its causes. Coming clean over the reasons for your split depends on the ages of your children, but ‘Mummy ran off with someone else’ or ‘Daddy doesn’t love Mummy any more’ is not appropriate for children to hear at any age, from two to 22. Marriages are complicated – even those inside them may not understand what is going on – and the intricacies of the parents’ relationship are not a child’s business.

What you will need to tell the children, loud and clear, is that the divorce is not their fault. They could not have prevented it by behaving better or finishing their broccoli. Stress that they are not to blame and that both parents love them.  Your children should already know this, but this is the moment to stress it.

You should also tell your children honestly that things will change. The children will now have two homes instead of one.  There will be to-ing and fro-ing at weekends, and there will be the odd tussle over parents’ evenings or school concerts. Everyone is going to have to be patient and kind to each other, including the separating spouses, until things settle down.  Establish some new routines, make sure they are clear, and try to help the family get used to the new situation quickly.

Of course, it is nigh on impossible to go through a divorce without a cross word or a terse conversation. After all, the reason you are getting divorced is that you don’t get on. But bickering should be kept away from the children.  Above all, resist the temptation to bad-mouth your spouse, whatever the provocation. Your children will work out who’s behaved well and who hasn’t and, if you ask them to join in a rant against your ex, you are asking them to divide their loyalties. They are your former partner’s children too, and of course love that parent too. They will also share characteristics with your ex so, if he/she is criticized, your child may feel under attack.

You and your ex may have decided to split up, but you have a commitment to your children for better or for worse. With forethought and plain speaking, you can demystify divorce and tell the children everything they need to know.


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  • Jane Alexander February 24, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Wise words, dear heart. I always had HUGE respect for my sister. Her husband was a total arsewipe but she never NEVER badmouthed him in any way, shape or form to their children… Yes, children take things to heart and blame themselves – for pity’s sake I blamed myself for my father dying of lung cancer when I was ten!
    Good post, DD. xxx

    • Dulwich Divorcee February 24, 2012 at 11:02 am

      Oh you poor mite – I hope there was someone around to tell you it completely wasn’t your fault! Your sister sounds fab – must run in the family xxx

  • Suburbia February 24, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Tried so hard to do all this!

    • Dulwich Divorcee February 27, 2012 at 11:38 am

      I know – it’s all a lot easier said than done, isn’t it? I’m sure you were brill xx

  • Nicola February 25, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    This is so well put. I am appalled at some of the things parents tell their children about each other – ‘your mom hates me that’s why she’s leaving’, ‘your father chose to live with a slut instead of us’ are some of the milder ones I’ve heard.
    My mother was beautifully dignified during my father & her divorce. Him? Not so much. We went on to have an incredibly close relationship with our mother, and no relationship with our father, because as you say – children will see for themselves who behaves and who doesn’t.

    • Dulwich Divorcee February 27, 2012 at 11:42 am

      Thanks for the lovely comment, Nicola. Yes, I’ve heard some shocking things said to my girls’ friends – mind you, some were from parents who have stayed together somehow! Sounds like your mother was a very gracious lady x

  • Love and Enterprise February 29, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Hmmm, that all sounds like very good advice. And I am sure it’s incredibly hard to get it right when emotions are running high and everybody’s stressed.

    I often tussle with the question of how honest to be with my kids. The other day I almost blurted out that the missing dog my daughter had seen in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago (… with the wonky eyes, she’d fallen in love with him and wondered where he could have possibly disappeared to …) had been found dead. But I stopped myself at the last minute, realizing that no good at all could come of her knowing that particular truth.

    • Dulwich Divorcee March 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Isn’t it awful? I used to edit books as I read them at storytime ….. I still don’t really like my daughters watching the news, it’s all such a tale of woe and disaster and the resolutions of conflict are never covered (if they do ever occur) as they are not as newsworthy as war …. our instincts are to protect but our heads tell us children need their independence …. not an easy balance. I think that as long as parents do ask themselves how to go about things occasionally they will usually get to the right mix of truth and need-to-know-ness 😉