Talking to kids about divorce is a daunting task for any parent. However, since one out of every two marriages today ends in divorce, many parents find themselves facing this conversation. When it comes to how to tell kids about divorce, a number-one rule is to keep the discussion age-appropriate.
When figuring out how to explain divorce to your child, keep in mind that telling a younger child is different from talking to teenagers. While a younger child may have trouble comprehending the concept of divorce, most teenagers have some understanding, through secondhand experience with friends or relatives as well as representations on television, in movies, and in books.
The Challenges of Telling Teenagers About Divorce
Teenagers often feel responsible when bad things happen in the family. Thus, a challenge for parents going through a divorce is helping a teenager cope with the emotional reality of the “new normal.”
Although telling teenagers about divorce is difficult, parents shouldn’t delay the conversation. If a teenager senses something is wrong but doesn’t understand what’s going on, they can become angry and resistant. Hence, this resentment often results in adverse consequences—such as oppositional or self-destructive behavior.
Thus, kids need to be reassured that they have two loving parents and the divorce isn’t their fault. Ideally, telling kids about divorce should be done peacefully, with both parents present. Before having the initial conversation, parents should anticipate questions that might arise and figure out how to answer them. Honesty tends to be the best policy, while avoiding antipathy and conflict between parents.
Possible Teen Divorce Reactions and Emotional Consequences
The process of how to tell kids about divorce can be a minefield. Teens often experience a multitude of painful emotions when confronting the reality of divorce.
Such teen divorce emotional reactions include the following:
- Initial shock and bewilderment
- Bargaining with their parents in an attempt to fix the problem
- The feeling of being abandoned and all alone
- Anger and hatred; blaming both parents or one parent
- Worries about their life being disrupted, including financial insecurities
- The silent treatment, when a teen refuses to engage and shuts off
- Minimization—downplaying the seriousness of what is happening
- A profound sense of loss.
Research from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry shows that longer-term consequences can include
- Vulnerability to both physical and mental illnesses
- Deep sadness
- Falling behind in school
- Behavior problems
- Trouble with their own relationships as teens and, later, adults
- Problems with self-esteem.
Behavior Problems, Substance Abuse, and Divorce
According to a study on the relationship between divorce and teen drug use, the experience of parental divorce/separation is associated with earlier initiation of alcohol use. In fact, researchers found that the experience of divorce/separation in childhood was the strongest predictor of age of drinking onset among all of the constructs examined. Hence, there seems to be a clear correlation between parental divorce and a decrease in the age of teens when they initially use alcohol.
Furthermore, in a study included in the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, experts conclude, “Children from divorced families had significantly more behavior problems than peers from intact families, and these problems were evident immediately after the separation and later on, in early and middle adolescence.” Given such a warning, attending to the wellness of teens during a divorce is paramount.
Six Strategies for How to Tell Kids About Divorce
Since telling kids about divorce is so challenging, here are six strategies that a parent can keep in mind:
1. Never speak negatively about each other in front of a teen or to a teen.
Even when parents feel angry and hateful toward each other, they need to refrain from expressing such emotions in front of the kids. Parents should not share details about marital problems or look for emotional validation or reassurance from their kids when telling teenagers about divorce. Maintaining teen wellness during a divorce demands proper boundaries.
2. Maintain a sense of safety and unconditional love.
Parents need to make sure that their kids know they are loved. It’s not just younger children who need to hear this; teens also need to be reassured that their parents love them no matter what. This assurance helps create a safe space where children can express feelings of grief and worry.
3. Use age-appropriate language when talking about the divorce.
When it comes to divorce, using age-appropriate language is crucial. Teenagers often ask uncomfortable questions and dig deeper than younger kids will. Be careful when answering these questions and be sure to maintain healthy boundaries.
Avoid discussing details about the other parent’s bad behavior—even if teens want to know everything.
4. Parents need to be aware of their own state of mind.
Divorcing parents often experience depression, anger, anxiety, and other painful emotions as a marriage ends. Kids don’t need to know about this. Parents should practice self-care, so their teens can focus on their own development and not have to act as caregivers for a wounded parent.
5. Develop a strong support system for the kids.
When a family goes through a divorce, it’s helpful to expand the support system by accessing other resources. Relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, counselors, and therapists can all help foster continuity and provide an additional outlet for teens to express themselves.
6. Be prepared for anger in response to disruption.
Like anyone else, teenagers do not like their lives to be disrupted. Facing divorce, teens often become resentful about custody arrangements, financial limitations, moving, or additional responsibilities, like caring for younger siblings. They don’t want to leave their friends or lose their home. Parents need to validate and address these concerns with compassion and understanding. For example, “It makes sense that you don’t want to move since we’ve lived in this house for so long. I understand why it’s upsetting. We will do everything we can to make this transition comfortable for you.”
Resources for How to Tell Kids About Divorce
Given the complexity of potential teen reactions to divorce, learning how to tell kids about divorce is a priority. To help, the Judicial Branch of California offers a free online guide called Families Change that includes three versions: one for parents, one for children, and another for teens and pre-teens.
Moreover, given the seriousness of this challenge and the possible consequences when talking to kids about divorce, professional support can be helpful. Indeed, mental health experts can assist both parents and teens after a divorce so they can find their footing once again.
Finally, even when parents are caring and careful when telling teenagers about divorce, the healing process takes time. Processing a divorce is difficult for any teenager. It requires patience and ongoing support from parents and other family members.
Psychol Addict Behav. 2016 Jun;30(4):450–461.
J Fam Psychol. 2015 Feb;29(1):39–48.