How to Explain Divorce to Young Children

Read about the ways you can explain divorce to young children.

When you get married you think and hope it will last forever, but that’s not always the case sadly. A divorce is one of the most stressful things that can happen to an adult, but when you have young children the stress gets even more burdensome. How can you explain such an adult situation to a young child? What can you do to make sure they are taken care of emotionally through this tough time?

Explaining it good enough

Young children may not be developmentally able to fully understand what a divorce is, and may have fears about what it might mean. Knowing your child’s abilities and how they process information can help you to know what to say and when. Explanations for younger children can be as simple as “dad is moving out, and we will live apart now but we will make sure you get time with both of us, and we love you” while a slightly older child may need more reassurance about what the time split will look like. Having a calendar or a wall chart that helps them know when and where they’re going to be is helpful for even children who can’t read yet if you provide enough visual clues.

The very youngest children may need continuing reminders of what is going on, that one parent is moving, that you’re going to live in different houses. They may seem to understand one day but it may feel like you’re starting at the beginning the next. Reassurance that they are loved and will be cared for may become more of the conversation than what is happening but don’t forget to keep letting them know about upcoming changes so they can feel secure in knowing what is going on.

Talking with preschoolers

Children who are in preschool may start asking questions, so it’s best to have answers ready. Keep answers simple and stick to the facts. Don’t overshare though, your young child doesn’t really need all the details. Saying that you’ve decided to live in different houses is much more to the point than explaining what the breaking point was. Make sure to work with your partner to come up with answers to anticipated questions. Having both parents on the same page can help make a child feel more secure.

Work out a routine and stick to it, your child will thrive knowing when it’s time to visit either parent, understanding that they have a special place at each residence and that while things are changing they will still be good. Communicate this routine to your child and keep them apprised of any adjustments that need to be made.

Spend time just listening to your child’s worries and fears about the divorce, resist the urge to interrupt them to explain things, let them finish getting it all out so you can get a real picture of where they are emotionally. Always reassure that they are loved and will continue to be loved, that they are safe and that you will be there for them. Encourage your child to share how they are feeling and what they are worried about by not reacting negatively. Parental guilt over divorce is a very real thing and it’s easy to feel like you’ve caused a huge problem for your child and get upset about it, but those feelings while valid are not helpfully expressed towards your child while they are sharing. Keep things positive on your end, and support your child instead of engaging in a back and forth about negative feelings.

What to avoid

Avoid discussing the negative aspects of the divorce in front of them, and don’t talk down about their other parent to them, but also especially within earshot. Children can feel your stress and angst, so try to redirect yourself if you feel the urge to let loose coming on. You don’t want to damage their relationship with their parent needlessly just because you’re upset. Remember that whatever caused the breakdown of your relationship to the point that you’ve chosen divorce, that the divorce itself is a way of healing the family and moving on in a more positive direction. While divorce may not feel positive while it’s going on, the pain and grieving period will not last forever and eventually, your family will find new ways to exist that are healthier for everyone. Keep focused on your end goal and work towards that, if you need to vent do it away from the children and to a trusted friend. Remember always that little ears can hear more than you realize so taking a stressful phone call in the car with them in their car seat isn’t ideal. Feel empowered to set boundaries and return calls later when your child is away from you.

Be patient with your child, they are going through a big adjustment just like you are, but they have even less of an understanding of what is going on than you do. Additionally, even the healthiest child will have fewer coping skills than the most stressed adult, so take your time with them and let them work through it as best they can. Be prepared to have a lot of discussions about the divorce and questions that are repeated. A child working through a new thing can often retrace their steps over and over until they have figured the situation out and divorce is no exception to that.

When to seek for an aditional help

Consider enlisting the help of a therapist for your child if the transition is proving too much for them. While it may absolutely be better in the long run for you and your partner to separate, it can be a stressful time for a child. Especially since young children may not be able to think beyond themselves very much yet and may feel that they are to blame. Even if you’ve been supportive and made it clear that they are loved, and are not at fault, those feelings can fester if not dealt with properly and a therapist can help you both guide through them more efficiently.