Telling children about divorce is never easy, so it is understandable to be worried about this and wonder what the best way to approach the subject is. While each situation is different, there are things you can do to help plan, make the conversation easier and limit any negative impact on your children.
In this blog, we cover some of the most common questions people have around telling children about divorce and the impact of divorce on children. We also share some key tips for dealing with divorce and children in a way that can help make things a little easier.
When should you tell your children about your divorce?
The right time to tell your children about your divorce is going to depend on the circumstances. Generally, it is better to tell them sooner rather than later so they have certainty over what is happening and time to get used to the idea.
Once you have made the decision to divorce and have agreed this with your spouse, this is usually the best time to tell your children. This will give them the maximum time to get used to the idea and ask any questions they have. Telling them while both parents are still in the family home can help to ease the transition, rather than telling them immediately before or after one parent has moved out.
It can be a good idea to have already established a parenting plan for your children with your spouse before telling your children about your divorce. You could discuss this with a family lawyer at an early stage. For older children, their wishes may have more of an impact on child arrangements, so this will need to be considered.
If you and your spouse are thinking about divorce but haven’t yet come to a decision, it is probably best not to tell your children just yet. If you are exploring options such as marriage counselling, it may be worth considering telling older children who are more able to understand (and may be aware your marriage is strained), but younger children may be less able to understand what this means.
Should you tell your children the reason for divorce?
When telling your children about divorce, it is inevitable that they will ask why this is happening, and you will need to give them some sort of answer they can understand. While it is good to be honest with your children, this does not mean you need to get into all of the specifics about exactly why your relationship is ending.
Ideally, you and your spouse should discuss the explanation you will give to your children, so you are both on the same page before having the conversation with them.
A good option is to give your children a general explanation, such as “We want different things in life and feel we will be happier apart” or “We realised that we like each other as friends but don’t love each other anymore”.
It is rarely a good idea to get into assigning blame or telling children about specific things your spouse has done, such as cheating. Unless there are specific concerns about your children’s wellbeing in relation to your spouse’s behaviour, it will generally be best for your children not to say anything that might damage their relationship with either parent.
If your children persist in asking questions that you don’t want to answer, you may need to explain that this is between you and their other parent and that you aren’t going to tell them.
It is, of course, a good idea to emphasise that the divorce is nothing to do with your children, that they are not to blame and that it does not affect how either of you feels about them.
How do you have the divorce conversation with your children?
When thinking about how to tell children about divorce, planning for the actual first conversation you have with them about the subject is really important. The right way to have the conversation with your children about the divorce will depend on your situation, but some general dos and don’ts you may want to consider include:
- Try to have the conversation with both parents there if possible
- Present the divorce as a joint decision (otherwise, they may see the parent who has chosen to end the marriage as “to blame”). Under the new divorce law introduced in April 2022 spouses can now present a joint application for divorce on a no fault basis.
- Have an idea of what child arrangements will be before telling your children, e.g. who will be staying in the family home
- Be prepared for questions
- Make sure your children know it’s okay to be upset
- Emphasise that the divorce is nothing to do with them and won’t change how you feel about them
- Blame your spouse for the divorce
- Try to make your children choose sides
- Let your children start taking sides (even if they want to)
- Ask your children to make any decisions then and there, e.g. who they want to live with
- Get angry (even if your children are)
- Tell them around birthdays or holidays (e.g. Christmas) as this is likely to be more upsetting and might form negative associations for the future
- Tell them in public
Keeping these tips in mind can make planning how to tell your children about divorce more straightforward.
At what age does divorce affect a child the most?
How divorce impacts a child will depend on various factors, so there is no definitive answer for how a child’s age will impact how much the divorce affects them. However, there is some evidence to suggest older children are more likely to be affected, according to a study by University College London (UCL).
Children aged 7-14 were more likely to experience emotional and behavioural issues if their parents divorced, compared to children in the same age group whose parents stayed together. For children aged 3-7, no difference in emotional or behavioural issues was found between those whose parents divorced and those who didn’t.
It is also important to remember that how you divorce and the sort of relationship you have after you separate is likely to have a big part to play in the emotional impact on your children. Keeping conflict to a minimum and making sure they maintain the best possible relationship with both parents is critical, so you should seek expert legal advice to help you have an amicable divorce and agree the right arrangements for your children early.
How can I get divorced without hurting my child?
It’s absolutely normal to worry about the impact your divorce will have on your children and to want to do everything possible to minimise any hurt they feel. The reality is that it is hard to predict how any individual child will be affected by divorce, and even the best managed divorce is likely to cause them some short-term upset.
To minimise any hurt your child may feel in the short term, you should focus on being clear with them about what is happening and, as stated elsewhere, emphasise that it is not about them and that both parents still love them just the same. Be sure to make time for your children, be available to answer their questions and support them with any emotions they are feeling.
In terms of any longer-term hurt your children may feel, it is important to encourage them to share their feelings, so you know what is going on. You can then think about what support they may need, including speaking to a counsellor or other professional if they are struggling.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to minimise the impact on your children is to make a joint commitment with the other parent to put the interests of your children first and ensure they have a full relationship with both of you.
How do I make the right arrangements for my children following divorce?
Making child arrangements when divorcing with kids can be challenging. You will need to decide where they will live, what contact they will have with each parent, what their normal schedule will look like, how each parent will fit into this and what will happen around times such as birthdays and holidays.
At all times, your children’s wellbeing and best interests should be at the forefront of both your minds, but you also need to make sure you protect your relationship with them. Exactly what child arrangements will make sense for your situation will completely depend on your specific circumstances.
Many parents agree child arrangements between them or with the help of a mediator or with advice from a family lawyer. This isn’t appropriate or possible in all situations, and it may sometimes be necessary to consider formal arbitration or as a last report to apply to a family court for a Child Arrangements Order to decide these issues.
Whatever the circumstances, it is important to speak to an experienced family lawyer at an early stage. They will be able to advise you on all aspects of splitting up with kids, including your rights and responsibilities as a parent, what decisions you will need to make and the options for doing so.
Where there are more complex issues to consider relating to separation and children, such as relocating or wellbeing concerns, a family lawyer can guide you through the steps you need to take to ensure your children’s best interests stay protected.
Talk to Woolley & Co Solicitors for advice
Our aim is to make separating with kids easier on you and your children, while making sure you get the right arrangements in place for them and you.
Divorce and family lawyer Cornwall