Family Dynamics: Tips for Talking to Kids About Separation or Divorce

Thank you to Wolfson Children's Hospital for providing these tips and resources on how to ease difficult family transitions.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of two parents who are dealing with divorce or separation is speaking with their children about the change.

This can be is particularly tough for kids, who may find it difficult to fully grasp why such a decision is being made and how their lives will be altered over the long term. On par with losing a loved one (in this case, the family unit as they knew it), little ones generally respond with emotions of shock, sadness, anger, frustration, or worry.

“Children will probably remember this significant conversation for the rest of their lives, including what parents say, and when and where they say it,” said Francesca Varallo Sims, PsyD, director of education and training for Wolfson Children’s Behavioral Health and Baptist Behavioral Health. “For children, the complex situation of divorce represents a pivotal and often traumatic shift in their world. So, it’s important parents present a united front and work together to help ease the transition.”

While breaking this difficult news is never easy, there are a few suggestions for parents on what they can do to help children navigate this challenging time.

Prepare to speak with your children

Parents should try to work together to get on a similar or the same page before approaching their children about the separation or divorce. This includes forming a plan of action, considering any and all talking points, and coming up with a clear and consistent narrative surrounding the decision.

“Parents should decide in advance what, when, and where they will share this news with their children,” said Dr. Varallo Sims. “By deciding what to share beforehand, there will be less room for potential surprises, personalization, or blame between parents. If parents are unable to collaborate, they should consider enlisting the support of a counselor or divorce mediator to help plan the conversation.”

If possible, both partners should present the news as a pair and showcase a united front. Dr. Varallo Sims says that this approach reinforces the idea that both parents are invested, reliable, and will work to co-parent well together. It also ensures that the separation has been a joint and amicable decision for both parties.

Little ones will likely want to know exactly what changes will be occurring, so make sure to organize any necessary logistics prior to the announcement.

“In that moment, children are mostly concerned with how the separation will impact their day-to-day lives,” explained Dr. Varallo Sims. “It’s best to focus on details that involve or impact the children directly, such as potential changes to living arrangements and daily routines. Using a concrete and structured approach to present information about what will and will not change can often help reduce feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.”

Another important factor surrounds that of timing, as children will need a little space to take in the information they just heard, fully process it, and ask any questions they may have. Definitely don’t plan to share the emotional news around a special holiday, birthday, or important school day.

A parent’s love will never change

After announcing the separation or divorce, both parents should attempt to relay reassuring, validating talking points, emphasizing that the emotional and physical security and safety of their child is a priority.

“Let children know this is not their fault and they are not responsible for keeping the relationship together,” said Dr. Varallo Sims. “Sharing certain details, like specific reasons why the separation is happening, will not meaningfully change a child’s emotional reaction or acceptance of the news. If those questions arise, it’s best to be prepared with a general statement that doesn’t place blame and then follow up at a later time with individual discussions tailored to each child’s developmental level.”

Parents should also reassure children that their love and support will absolutely never wane, despite the difficult times and adjustments that may lie.

“It’s important to emphasize that it may be hard at first and take time to adjust, but you will all get through it together,” said Dr. Varallo Sims. “Let children know they are not alone and that they will always be cared for.”

Looking toward the future

These conversations surrounding separation or divorce will likely continue over time, during which the family will gradually shift into a new dynamic.

Every child is different, having a unique emotional reaction and timeline of adjustment, but there are certain indicators to keep an eye out for that may pose cause for concern, such as:

  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Developmental regression (bedwetting, etc.)
  • A decline in school performance
  • General irritability
  • Increased clinginess
  • Misbehavior
  • Social isolation

“Depending on the child’s age, the expression of maladjustment can look different,” said Dr. Varallo Sims. “If grief or sadness is starting to impair daily functioning, parents should seek the input of a professional therapist, either at the child’s school or in the community. It’s best to utilize any available resources early on to promote successful coping and prevent a crisis.”

Conversations can be challenging, and Wolfson Children’s On Our Sleeves program has resources to help. Sign up for the Wolfson Children’s On Our Sleeves monthly e-newsletter, which features timely, actionable resources for parents, caregivers, and other concerned adults. If you need to speak to someone immediately, call the Wolfson Children’s 24/7 Kids & Helpline at 904.202.7900 or text LIFE to 741741.

Wolfson Children’s Hospital is the only hospital just for kids in the North Florida and South Georgia region, providing care for children of all ages with congenital heart conditions, cancer, neurological disorders, orthopedic conditions, behavioral health disorders, and more.

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