Tips for Helping Children Cope with Divorce

Helping children cope with divorce is an ongoing process. And while it may appear that they have adjusted to all the changes and transitions, they probably still have questions about why you and your ex split up. As they get older, explaining just what happened will probably involve a more details than when you first broke the news to them. Find out just how much you should share...

Looking Back on Your Divorce

by Brette Sember

Teen girl's questioning gaze

Most parents have a script they stick to when explaining the divorce to their kids at the time it happens. "Mom and Dad don't love each other anymore," "We want to live apart so we won't fight so much," or "We will be happier living separately." This script works well during the tumult of the divorce and the changes that happen in everyone's lives.

As the months and years pass and things settle down into a new routine and your children get older and start to date (or think about dating), they will probably have more questions. They may start to think they didn't hear the whole story or that there are explanations they are owed. At some point, your child is going to corner you and demand the "real" story about the divorce.

Why They Are Asking

Your kids will start to have these questions for many reasons. Often they are evaluating themselves as potential mates and wondering what mistakes to avoid. They're also often wondering if they are predisposed to cheat, be violent, or uncaring.

They are trying to understand themselves and doing this means understanding what happened in their family. Kids also often feel they need to understand their parents better. They want to know what "really" happened, so that they can set up a narrative for themselves as to what the true story is, realizing that you probably sugarcoated things a bit when they were younger.

What Should You Share?

Deciding what to tell your teen or young adult is a tough decision. On the one hand, you may want to finally be truthful about what happened in the family, but you probably also feel a need to protect your child. It's a difficult balance to achieve.

You want your child to continue to have a good relationship with the other parent (and if that relationship is precarious, you should be careful not to damage it further), but you also might want to be able to clear up some misperceptions your child has (kids frequently create their own story line to go with the divorce which may or may not be accurate).

You need to think also about what you are comfortable sharing. Your private life is your own and your child has no right to your details unless you want to share them.

Tips for Talking About It

It often is helpful to share some details so that your child can have a better understanding of what happened and why. Always remember that your child is not your friend or confidante and is not ready to hear you vent the whole, unfettered truth. Follow these tips when talking about the divorce:

  • Help your child understand that there were many things that happened over the years that eventually led to the divorce and it was the combination of all these factors, not one event that led to the divorce. 

  • Stress that both you and your ex may have made mistakes and did things wrong, but you have both moved on and you want your child to be able to do that as well. 

  • There are two sides to every divorce. Your truth is not your ex's truth and vice versa, so be sure to tell your child that your ex might have a different point of view about what happened. 

  • If you are breaking the news that the other parent cheated (or that you did), be careful because this is potentially very upsetting for your child to learn. 

  • Talk about your truths in the divorce: what you wanted for yourself that you didn't have, what you needed that you couldn't get, and where you wanted to go with your life instead of making a list of everything your ex did that was wrong. 

  • Apologize. Deep inside, every child (no matter how old) feels that the divorce was a personal devastation to his or her life. Tell your child you're sorry it was hard and no one wanted him or her to be hurt. 

  • Put a positive spin on it if you can. Because of the divorce you were able to go on to get a different job, marry someone else, have more kids, move somewhere else, discover who you really are - whatever the truth in your situation is. 

Frame the divorce as one event within your huge lifetime of events that have worked together to bring you to where you are now. If you can feel positive about what has happened, your child is likely going to be able to as well. 

The following articles offer more advice on helping children cope with divorce, as well as understanding their behavior in reaction to your divorce: 

  1. Divorce
  2. Children
  3. Helping Children Cope with Divorce as They Get Older