Talking with your children about family transition
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Wondering how to tell your children you’re getting a divorce or separation? And how to talk to them about the family transition that follows? Here are some answers to your questions about how to discuss these important issues with your children in a thoughtful, loving way.
We’re planning to get divorced (or separated). Who should tell our children?
Without question, children should hear about their parents’ separation or divorce from their parents.
Will it be better if both of us tell the children together?
Yes! When both parents tell children about plans for divorce or separation at the same time, the children see that they will continue to work together as parents. Breaking the news together also helps ensure the accuracy of information and prevents possible sharing of misleading information. Calmness and neutrality are of utmost importance during the conversation. Don’t sugarcoat the situation, but present it in a positive manner.
When should we tell the children?
Choose a time when the conversation will be private and uninterrupted. Give your children time to process the announcement. Children may react by needing to be alone, asking more questions, getting angry with you, or spending time with a friend. They may need to do one or all of these things. After they have had time to reflect on the news of the family transition, offer more opportunities to talk.
This is important, so how do we tell the children “the right way”?
Be thoughtful and prepare what you will say. Your children deserve to be told in a loving and caring way. Even if you think your children have seen this coming, they will still most likely react with sadness, shock, anger, or even some residual disbelief. You must assure your children that you will be there for them physically and emotionally, no matter how they feel.
Also remember to speak both positively and realistically. Simply telling children “everything will be all right” is not acceptable for several reasons. Here are two:
- While things most likely will be “all right” in the end, the transition won’t be without troubles, which this kind of remark implies.
- Your children will probably not be feeling “all right” at the moment and may not want be comforted. They need to work through their emotions.
Validate and name your children’s feelings by saying something like, “I know you’re angry right now and I’m sorry for that.” Remain calm and ready to answer questions with honesty. Sometimes you won’t know the answer. In those cases, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
We’ve told our children about our plans to divorce (or separate). Now what?
Even after you tell your children about your plans to divorce or separate, they will want to talk about this major change in their life more than once. They will also continue to want information about what to expect during the family transition. Speak to your children about what’s happening in ways that are appropriate for their age and stage of development.
Above all, you should speak to your children in ways that convey love, understanding, and assurance that they will be cared for as the family starts a new way of life. Help your children understand that they can always talk to you, or another trusted, caring adult, about what’s on their minds. Open, honest communication is essential to building trust in your “new” family.
What do our children need to hear about the family transition — about changes they can expect in the future?
Be as specific as possible about issues like new living, custody, and visitation arrangements. At the same time, be honest about things that are still uncertain, noting that both of you will always strive to do what’s best for them (the children).
Remember to keep repeating key messages to your children. Here are a couple important ones:
- The divorce or separation has nothing to do with them; they did not cause it (although they cannot stop it, either). Stated another way, divorce is between parents - not between parents and their children.
- You will both continue to love them as much as you did before.
What do children not need to know?
When talking to your children about the coming family transition, you need to be as careful about what you don’t say as what you do. Don’t share details about adult concerns or burden children with your worries. Children need to be free to fully experience childhood.
Children also do better if they don’t witness parental conflict. This includes not hearing about it, or even sensing it, during discussions you have with them about the divorce or separation. Remember, too, that your children will still have a relationship with both of you. Don’t “poison” their relationship with the other parent by saying too much.
Children's books on divorce
Reading to children can be a great bonding opportunity for parents. After a family transition like divorce or separation, reading books about the topic can be a useful strategy for getting children to "open up" about their thoughts and feelings about the changes. The following are some suggested titles to get started.
Print-friendly version: Children's Books on Divorce and Separation (PDF)
- A Day With Daddy by Nikki Grimes (2004). Scholastic. ISBN: 978-0439568500
- At Daddy's on Saturdays by Linda Walvoord Girard (1999). Albert Whitman & Company. ISBN: 978-0807504734
- Bessie Bump Gets a New Family by Amberley Meredith (2010). Eloquent Books. ISBN: 978- 1609119010
- Charlie Anderson by Barbara Abercombie (1995). Margaret K. McElderry Books. ISBN: 978- 0689801143
- Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families by Marc Brown & Laurie Krasny Brown (1999). Brown Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 978-0316109963
- Do I Have A Daddy?: A Story About A Single-Parent Child by Jeanne Warren Lindsay (2000). Morning Glory Press. ISBN: 978-0930934446
- Good-Bye, Daddy! by Brigitte Weninger (1997). North-South Books. ISBN: 978-1558583832
- It's Not Your Fault, Koko Bear: A Read-Together Book for Parents & Young Children During Divorce by Vicki Lansky (1998). Book Peddlers. ISBN: 978-0916773472
- Let's Talk About Divorce by Fred Rogers (1996). Puffin. ISBN: 978-0698116702
- Loon Summer by Barbara Santucci (2010). Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 978- 0802853899
- Mom and Dad Don't Live Together Any More by Kathy Stinson (1988). Tandem Library. ISBN: 978-0785798958
- My Family's Changing by Pat Thomas (1999). Barron's Educational Series. ISBN: 978- 0764109959
- My Mother's House, My Father's House by C. B. Christiansen (1989). Atheneum. ISBN: 978-0689313943
- Priscilla Twice by Judith Caseley (1995). Greenwillow Books. ISBN: 978-0688133054
- Two Homes by Claire Masurel (2003). Candlewick. ISBN: 978-0763619848
- Was It the Chocolate Pudding? A Story for Little Kids About Divorce by Sandra Levins & Bryan Langdo (2005). Magination Press. ISBN: 978-1591473091
- When My Parents Forgot to Be Friends by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos (2005). Barron's Educational Series. ISBN: 978-0764131721
- Always My Dad by Sharon Dennis Wyeth (1998). Scholastic. ISBN: 978-0590031738
- I Love My Parents, But I Hate Divorce by Pat H. Otto (1997). Wildwater Publications. ISBN: 978- 0965785419
- Amber Brown Goes Forth by Paula Danziger (1997). Puffin. ISBN: 978-0142409015
- Amber Brown Sees Red by Paula Danziger (2009). Puffin. ISBN: 978-0142412619
- Blue Sky, Butterfly by Jean van Leeuwen (1996). Dial. ISBN: 978-0803719729
- But...What About Me? (How It Feels To Be A Kid In Divorce) by Bonnie Doss & Jennifer Schroeder. (1998). Bookmark Publishers. ISBN: 978-0965389563
- Chevrolet Saturdays by Candy Dawson-Boyd (1993). Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. ISBN: 978-0027117653
- Divorce by Debra Goldentyer (1998). Raintree-Steck Vaughn Publishers. ISBN: 978-0817250300
- Divorce Is Not the End of the World by Zoe Stern & Evan Stern (2008). Tricycle Press. ISBN: 978- 1582462417
- Family Break-Up by Kelly Bishop & Penny Tripp (2003). Heineman Library. ISBN: 978- 0431098104
- Ginny Morris and Mom's House, Dad's House by Mary Gallagher (2005). Magination Press. ISBN: 978-1591471578
- It's Not the End of the World by Judy Blume (2014). Atheneum . ISBN: 978-1481411165
- My Parents Are Divorced, Too: A Book For Kids By Kids by Melanie Ford (2006). Magination Press. ISBN: 978-1591472421
- My Parents Are Getting Divorced: How to Keep It Together When Your Mom and Dad Are Splitting Up by Florence Cadier & Melissa Daly. Amulet Books. ISBN: 978-0810991637
- My Parents Still Love Me Even Though They're Getting Divorced (an interactive tale for children) by Lois V. Nightingale (1997). Nightingale Rose Publications. ISBN: 978-1889755007
- The Squeaky Wheel by Robert Kimmel Smith (2008). iUniverse. ISBN: 978-0595522033
- The Trouble with Thirteen by Betty Miles (1984). Avon Books. ISBN: 978-0380674701
- What Can I Do? A Book for Children of Divorce by Danielle Lowry (2002). Magination Press. ISBN: 978-1557987709
- What Children Need to Know When Parents Get Divorced by William Coleman (1998). Bethany House Publishers. ISBN: 978-0764220517
- What Do We Think About: Family Break-Up by Jullian Powell (2001). Hodder Wayland. ISBN: 978-0750232517
- For Better, For Worse: A Guide to Surviving Divorce for Preteens and Their Families by Janet Bode (2001). Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. ISBN: 978-0689819452
- I Want Answers and a Parachute by P.J. Petersen (1993). Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. ISBN: 978-0671865771
- Help!: A Girl's Guide to Divorce and Stepfamilies by Nancy Holyoke (1999). American Girl. ISBN: 978-1562477493
- Split In Two: Keeping it Together When Your Parents Live Apart by Karen Buscemi (2009). Zest Books. ISBN: 978-0980073218
- When Your Parents Split Up: How To Keep Yourself Together by Alys Swan-Jackson, Lynn Rosenfield, & Andy Cooke (1999). Sagebush Education Resources. ISBN: 978-0613823777
- When Your Parents Divorce: A Handbook for Children Whose Parents Are Divorcing by Betty Clark (1998). Educational Media Corp. ISBN: 978-0932796899
Reviewed in 2013