How to tell kids about divorce (when parents can’t agree)

How to tell kids about divorce? Despite some couples’ best efforts, there are times when divorce is inevitable.

If you share kids with your spouse, your next question is usually “What do we tell the kids?”

Many therapists will advise you to partner with your spouse, take a united front and tell your kids something like, “Mom and dad have decided to get a divorce.”

But what if you don’t want the divorce?  Should you lie to your kids?

(If this is your situation there may still be hope for your marriage. Read What to do When Your Spouse Wants a Divorce and You Don’t.)  

how to tell kids about divorce

Talking to kids about divorce without a united front

I covered some basic concepts on how to tell your kids about divorce here, but today I want to get more specific and talk about what to do when one parent wants the divorce and the other does not.

I don’t think lying to your kids is ever the best response.  

For one thing, they will almost always know when you are lying.  

They have lived with you and your spouse and have seen the issues up close even if you think you kept all the negative stuff hidden.  

Kids have brilliant “BS” detectors.  

Lying to them about such a big issue will cause them to doubt everything else you are telling them and that just isn’t good. Lying and telling them this is a joint decision won’t lessen the pain they feel.  

While I think honesty is very important, I also think it would be easy to turn this already difficult situation into a damaging fiasco.  No matter how you present the divorce option, your kids may be inclined to take sides and telling the truth could easily slant them against the parent who is wanting out.

Be sensitive to this and avoid encouraging this with blaming words or nonverbal cues. Your kids need both of you in their lives.  If you give in to the temptation of swaying them to your side, you risk their emotional health.  

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Create a game plan with your spouse on how to tell the kids about divorce (if you can)

Prior to telling them, it’s important to discuss with your spouse how you’re going to tell the kids about divorce.  

You do not have to agree with your spouse about presenting a united front to the children, if you’re not also wanting a divorce.  This may make your spouse very angry but you are not responsible for their emotions or behavior–only your own.

Your spouse will almost certainly want you share the blame for the failed marriage.  It makes him/her look less like the villain.  But do you really want to make it easier for your spouse to leave and feel good about the decision?  

The argument you will hear from your spouse and very likely other “experts” is that you need to think about the kids first.  You need to put their needs before your own.  

Isn’t that ironic?  

You may be thinking if your spouse was really putting the kids’ needs first, he/she would be fighting for the marriage, right?

Experts want a united front because it makes everyone look as if they are playing nice.  

The object is to keep conflict and blaming away from the kids because divorce is painful enough.  

But you can be honest without casting blame or giving your kids information they don’t need.  

You can simply say something like “You guys know we haven’t been getting along very well.  We disagree on a lot of things including whether to stay married.  Since it takes two people who want to be in a marriage for it to work we are getting a divorce.”

Your kids don’t need to know the reasons why one of you is leaving, or why the other wants to stay married.

You can stand up for yourself in this way, and it is still both honest and respectful.

When the kids have questions about the divorce

The kids will most likely have questions.  They may not come up during the initial conversation.  

Regardless of the timing, think through how you will answer difficult questions.

Do not share personal or intimate details of the reasons behind your divorce.  

Instead, say things like, “You may have noticed that we’ve been fighting a lot,” or “We are having a tough time seeing eye-to-eye on some really big problems.”  This addresses the main issue, but does not provide details that the kids do not need.

Assure them they are not the cause of the divorce and let them know you will continue to be their parents and they can depend on you.

Remember the kids are not a go-between the adults.  

They are still children.  

You are the adults in this situation.

Ultimately, remember that you don’t have to present a united front about divorce.  It’s best to be honest and open, but to find the balance between sharing enough without all the graphic details.

Other helpful links:

Divorcing you marriage – what have you done to change?

9 Things to Consider Before Telling Your Kids About the Divorce

The Re-Engage Toolkit

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2 thoughts on “How to tell kids about divorce (when parents can’t agree)

  1. I agree with not casting lots of blame but not lying (especially through gritted teeth) and like the suggested approach. But what do you say when the children ask which parent is the one who doesn’t want to stay in the marriage? Thanks

    1. Ed, I suggest telling the truth. It is likely they already know which one wants out. Just be careful not to play the victim. The truth is also that you both have contributed to the failure of the marriage.