Telling Your Kids You’re Getting Divorced: The Hardest Thing You’ll Ever Do

I remember the night we told my kid we were getting divorced. 

It was a hot summer night in the middle of summer in 2016. I dragged my feet, one heavy step behind another, to the kitchen island where my soon-to-be ex sat with my kid. 

Not one fiber of my being wanted to have this talk. I didn’t want to tell my kid that his parents were splitting up, largely because of the impact it would have on him. This was going to be tough. I also didn’t want to talk about it because at the time, I was still living in shock and denial. I didn’t know what was happening to me exactly but what I did understand was that I didn’t want any part of it. 

Looking back on it now, I realize that telling him was a way of admitting the divorce to myself. Telling this tiny copy of myself was literally like telling myself. And I wasn’t ready for that. I guess there were a lot of reasons I didn’t want to have that talk.

But ready or not, it was happening — that much I had come to accept. This divorce was going to happen no matter what I wanted. I could either be a part of it or let someone else drag me through it. 

So I choose to be present for it. I choose to act. 

In the week or so prior, we prepared for that conversation. We took it seriously. We sat together and went through the initial logistics of our new strange lives of shared parenting and division of assets. We had talks about who would get the kid on what days when we weren’t having awkward, painful conversations about the relationship ending. It was like having a conversation about how you go about escaping a burning building while the building you’re standing in is literally on fire. 

Even though it was the last thing I ever wanted to do with the last person I could stand to be around at that time, we collaborated and worked it out. I’m still not sure how I managed to make it happen but it happened. 

Some people aren’t as lucky. Some people don’t have their ex around to take part in this process. Some have to do it alone. And for them, it can be even harder. It’s harder because being alone doesn’t make the divorce conversation any less important, just tougher to manage on your own. Regardless if you can team up with your soon-to-be-ex or have to go it solo, the divorce conversation is one of the most important ones you’ll ever have. 

The divorce conversation is the first big official milestone in your kids journey to dealing with their parents’ divorce. It’s the big moment where you break the terrible news to the little people in your lives. You take an extremely adult situation, reimagine it, and mold it into some kind of kid-friendly, severely-edited super cut of the goriest horror movie imaginable that’s supposed to air on the Disney channel. 

Telling your kids that you’re splitting up is one of the hardest things you’ll even do, at least it was for me. It sets the stage for literally everything that will come next in the divorce. To the extent that it’s possible, you need to be ready for this conversation.

If your soon-to-be ex is still around, then I hope you can find the strength to put aside your differences for one last time so you can collaborate on the thing that’ll make the situation easier on your kids. Shove your differences to the side for a minute and realize this divorce is happening to your kids they’re going to suffer. It’s important — perhaps the most important thing you’ll do in their lives — and here’s why. 

You Owe it to Your Kids to Work Together on Your Divorce Conversation

You and your partner owe it to your kids to work together to make the divorce happen. 

It won’t be fun — there’s no stopping it from hurting — but working against each other throughout the entire process won’t help matters either. You’ll have your entire lives to hate each other, make sure you take the time to collaborate on things like telling your kids about your divorce. 

I get that it sounds insane. When I was going through my divorce, I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with my soon-to-be-ex, let alone look her in the eye. You may be lucky just to get your ex in the room at all. 

Here’s the thing about divorce with kids though. While it’s at times about you, it’s also about the kids you and your ex brought into this world and they’re blameless in your new endeavor. Everything that’s going on right now is happening to them. 

They’re just kids who have had their world tilted to the side and shaken violently. This divorce isn’t their choice — it was yours — and they’re along for the ride regardless of how they feel.  

So when it comes to having that conversation about your divorce, you need to get it off on the right foot. You owe it to your kids to adult up, put your differences aside for a minute, and work together to make it as smooth as possible. 

Prepare yourself mentally to work with the person you can’t trust anymore for the sake of your kid’s well-being. Put on a brave face for your kiddos and partner up with the person you can’t stand to be around so your divorce is, at the very least, that much easier on the little people. 

Working Together on the Divorce Conversation is Vital to Their Bouncing Back

One of the worst things about divorce is that it usually happens to the little people in your life at precisely one of their most important developmental times. Just when they need a safe, stable environment and two parents working in harmony, their lives are going to be the exact opposite. 

Studies show divorce impacts kids negatively in a number of ways. Developmental psychologist Dr. Dona Matthews says that when compared to children living in homes with intact families, kids whose parents are going through a divorce are prone to

But here’s the good news. Kids are resilient. Kids bounce back. There’s bound to be some bad things to happen to your kids in your divorce. But with your time and effort in the way it’s handled, you can make sure they don’t stay that way. You can give them a fighting change. They can recover and thrive in the time following your divorce.

You have to put the work in though. You’ve got to be there. 

Dr. Mathews states that after a year or two, most of the children of divorce who experienced academic, behavioral, or psychological problems “adapt to the new routines and grow comfortable with the new living arrangements.” They can rebound from the temporary hardships of their new lives and get comfortable with their new surroundings. 

But it doesn’t just happen on its own — there’s work to be done. The successful rebounding of your kids and their ability to return to some kind of normalcy is directly related to the time and effort you put into your divorce and its subsequent impact upon their lives.

Said another way, the work you put into helping your kids through your divorce will dictate how they end up. 

Dr. Mathew says “the likelihood of good outcomes for children is increased” when at least one of the parents: 

  • ensures the children feel safe and secure
  • is warm, affectionate, and open with the children
  • respects and speaks well of the other parent
  • co-operates with the other parent about matters that involve the children
  • facilitates ongoing, regular, and dependable contact with the other parent
  • has clear and reasonable expectations of the children
  • provides close but respectful monitoring
  • supports empowerment and autonomy
  • teaches good problem-solving and coping skills
  • maintains a network of social support with extended family, neighbors, and community
  • seeks professional help for self or children as needed

Working with your soon-to-be-ex partner and displaying positive parenting behaviors will give your kid the best chance at bouncing back quickly. On the lower end of the spectrum, you’ll be actively working toward helping your kid avoid bad decisions. At the very least, you’ll be giving your kid the attention they deserve. 

It Gets the Ball Rolling on Co-parenting

As I prepared to have that tough conversation with my kid, I found myself working with my soon-to-be-ex partner on a ton of really important logistical stuff. Despite being on completely different pages with respect to our actual marriage, we both agreed that we didn’t want to fuck up the conversation about the event with our kid. 

We didn’t get the marriage right by any stretch but we weren’t going to botch the downfall. 

It was around this time that I adopted this sort of mantra that helped me get through my divorce. It helped me put a focus on co-parenting and the importance of it in light of our divorce. 

It went like this:

“I always thought I would spend the rest of my life with this person and I will, just not in a way I ever could’ve imagined.”  

I’d find myself saying that repeatedly during the day, over and over, as if I was consciously trying to teach myself the lesson. This was the thing my brain wanted me to remember, I thought, and it was making me say it again and again to cement the idea.  

And that’s the last thing that I realized about the importance of working with my soon-to-be-ex partner on that crucial divorce talk with your kid. It lays the groundwork of co-parenting to follow. It gets the ball rolling on how you’ll work with your partner going forward. 

Previous to this moment in your life, in some form or another and with varying degrees of success, you worked with your partner to accomplish tasks. The two of you worked to make a home together, plan for the future, and do all sorts of things as a duo. Now that time is over and you’re more than likely going to feel like you can never work together ever again. 

But your selfish unwillingness to work out things with your partner isn’t going to benefit your children.  

If your soon-to-be-ex partner is in the picture at all, the “we can’t work together” is a mindset you’re going to have to change if only for your kids. As uncomfortable as the truth is, it’s still a fact that this person is going to be in your life forever because you’re linked together by the lives you brought into this world.  

Putting on a brave face and teaming up with the person you can’t stand to be around for the sake of your kids teaches you the importance — initially — of co-parenting. It rips off the bandaid so to speak and forces you to work together. 

Prepare Your Ass off and Be Careful With How You Do It

You cannot wing this conversation — there’s absolutely no way that will work. If you go into this situation thinking you can just go with the flow and improvise where necessary, you’re going to be severely disappointed by the outcome. Here’s why.

In the moment, we say very stupid things. We get nervous and try to fill the air with words. When you get in this situation, you’re going to have some of the most important people in your life looking to you for answers. When your kids are looking at you with tears in their eyes, mouths hanging wide open, lost and confused, you better have an answer and it should probably be substantial. 

And when that moment happens, if you’re half a parent, you’re going to feel compelled to say things. Any things. If you’re unprepared, those things can come from a place of anger and frustration and be hurtful things. They can be finer points of your divorce that feel like important things but nonetheless inappropriate for a kid to hear. 

Don’t get into this situation. Uncertainty and lack of direction are going to be your enemy and can lead to you saying unhelpful, damaging shit. Preparation is key. 

Instead of going in cold, come up with a plan of what you’re going to say to your kids. Make an outline of the things you want to talk about. Literally write down all the things you need to cover in the conversation, starting with the fact that this divorce is happening. 

Handling the “What” 

Every divorce is different. 

The finer points of what led to your split are going to vary from person-to-person. But it all starts with the base idea that you two are getting divorced. That’s the conversation starter. 

The conversation starts where it starts — with the fact that you’re getting divorced. You may be living in a home where this fact is pretty much a given because of the way you’ve all been fighting or it may be a total shock. Whatever the matter, you need to say this to your kids and deliver it in a way that’s appropriate to their tiny minds. You need to be as truthful as possible in this situation. 

Don’t get colorful with words or try to dress it up in unnecessary flowery language. Just say the thing. 

Handling The “Why”

Next, your kids are going to need some reasoning. That’s naturally going to follow. After you tell your kids the news they’re going to naturally have questions about what is happening. They’re going to want to know why. 

My kid is literally a tiny version of myself — some copy-and-paste interpretation of me — and his tiny face at the moment we told him looked oddly familiar to me. It took a second but I came to realize I knew that face because I had the exact same expression two weeks prior when I got the news about the divorce myself.

Because here’s the thing about explaining the “Why” in your tough conversation. You’re going to have to do it whether you like it or not. Your kids will expect — and let’s be honest, deserve — a reason for why you two are splitting up. 

But it’s not the time for leveling judgement on your soon-to-be-ex. No matter how great it may make you feel to let your kids know the justification for what caused the divorce, that’s not their weight to carry. Just because mom or dad did something deemed monumentally stupid at the time, that doesn’t mean the kids have to carry the weight of that thing around. Adult situations don’t belong to kids — it’s right in the name — so avoid tossing around blame.  The divorce conversation isn’t the time for “you mom did this” or “dad did that.” That’s selfish and hurtful and not in the kids best interests. 

Regardless of how vile, shocking, or significant the actions of you or your ex, it’s not worth airing them out in your conversation about your divorce. 

It’s better to explain it as “an adult decision based on how we felt at the time that impacted our relationship.” And the always-important end to every single explanation of the divorce is:

“And it isn’t your fault.” 

Reminding the kids that they are participants in the event and not the cause of the situation is vitally important. You just bolt that into nearly every conversation. 

When it comes to the “why” of getting divorced, a good formula is this:

“Adult decision” + “Not your Fault” = “We both love you and we’ll get through this.” 

Being unprepared for this situation can lead to some significantly uncomfortable, tense, and explosive situations. If you’re backed into a corner and frustrated, afraid, and confused because your kids are shocked, hurt, and angry, you’re going to act in a way you regret. 

Don’t be unprepared for this part. Know what you’ll say, practice saying it, and be the leader in this situation. This is your divorce too. 

The “How”

The next logical step in talking about your divorce after covering what it is and why it’s happening is going to be around what it means for the kids. They’re going to want to know the “what’s next” part of the conversation and again, it’s worth knowing what to say before you go into this. 

Here’s the good news — you’ve probably already kicked this around with your out-going partner. If your situation is anything like mine, you’re probably going to be involved with someone that is quite literally running for the door. Your soon-to-be-ex will be motivated to make an exit and the conversations around assets, who’ll get the kids, and other stuff will probably already have started. 

It’s beneficial to lay out some temporary groundwork around how the divorce is going to go in that initial tough conversation. On top of giving your kids something to think about besides their parents splitting up, it gives your kids a sense of security. Sure, they’re about to be dragged through divorce but at least there’s a plan. Their parents couldn’t figure out how to stay together but at least there’s a plan going forward. 

Here’s the other thing. You need to be very careful with how these conversations go because the skeleton plans you make today — the “we’ll-do-this-for-now” set up you have with your ex — could very well be the permanent situation going forward. 

Despite your feelings otherwise, we as people often make temporary solutions that end up being forever situations. Our “this’ll do for now” plans quite often end up being the thing that sticks, and we’re following through with our in-the-moment decisions years later. 

Through the course of the day, I bump into half a dozen “temporary fixes” around my house that were supposed to be short-term home improvement solutions. I promised to revisit them soon enough but never did. That’s life and we do it often. If you say it’s untrue, invite me over and we’ll have a beer about how we found the three or four things that fit this mold. It’s uncomfortable to admit that we often leave momentary patches for permanent solutions and it sucks, but it’s also true. 

So you need to understand that the skeleton plans you make today for where the kids will go or how support is handled could very well be the permanent plans for tomorrow. Everything you come up with could be used as the precedent that was set. It could be the thing that ends up sticking. It could be the thing you end up going with.

The concessions you make today, regardless of however temporary you promise them to be, could be the permanent solutions and divorce guidelines going forward. 

Here’s how to use that to your advantage.  

Engage yourself very early in the preparation for the tough conversations and realize that your input can guide the outcome. I know it’ll be difficult, but try and see into the future and figure out what you want for your kids post-divorce. Your work on the tough conversations can guide the situation and build the kind of post-life you want. 

You need to maintain the 50/50 mindset you had going into your divorce conversations and think that way about your kids. Don’t let yourself be bullied into thinking you deserve anything less with respect to having them around. Don’t settle for only having your kids on weekends because your soon-to-be-ex tells you that’s what you’re going to get. Go into the conversation around the divorce with the end in mind — a shared parenting situation — because that could lead to setting a precedent going forward. 

To the extent that you can, work hard to talk with your soon-to-be-ex about shared-parenting schedules that involve equal time. Don’t give up ground here in the promises that you’ll work out a better schedule in the future — that time may never come. Stand your ground now. The person you’re divorcing — that’s right, you’re separating as well — could use your timid response to having the kids as an excuse to keep them away from you. Fight for your time with your kids. 

Also, be careful around temporary division of any assets. Your ex doesn’t have your best interests in mind — not even close — so be firm about this stuff. Protect yourself and your kids. 

Get Ready to Do a Lot of Listening, Answer a Lot of Tough Questions, and Explain Things Thoroughly

Also, if you kids are like mine, their grasp on the situation won’t come all at once during that initial conversation. It’ll come in waves.

I ended up explaining my divorce to my kid over and over again. Every so often on my weeks with him, he’d ask me to explain the situation again. We’d be driving to get something to eat or playing in his room, and I’d see a seriousness wash over his young face and I could tell he’d be deep in thought about what was happening in his life. 

“So, tell me about how you guys are getting divorced again?” he’d say.

And I’d start from the beginning of that tough conversation and follow through with the whole thing from start to finish. I’d follow the script word for word without embellishment and work through the entire story of the what, why and how. 

Overtime, I helped my kid build an understanding of what was happening in his life one piece at a time. It was almost as if we were constructing a house of understanding around the divorce in his mind that he could revisit on occasion and experience when he wanted. 

And the comparison to building a home was a good one because it was certainly how he learned about and understood it. When we first talked to him about getting divorced, you could tell there was a certain level of understanding on the matter forming in his head but it wasn’t a total grasp of the situation. He had the frame of the whole matter in his mind. The home had a poured cement foundation, studs for walls, and the A-frame resting on top. But it was still a skeleton of the home with no drywall, windows, front door or shingles. He got the makeup of the house but didn’t yet know how the whole thing would hang together. 

When we talked about the situation, it was almost as if you could see him grasping the frame of the home but still wandering around the unfinished rooms trying to understand how the whole thing would work out. 

As time went on and the conversations continued, his place gained structure and was finished. We added parts as we went along and the home began to take shape in his mind. And just as the most challenging parts of a home building project can be the finishing touches the conversations that led to his full understanding of what was happening were often more difficult and involved.  Just like finishing drywall is tedious and frustrating, and the taping, painting, and edging around trim can be a time consuming arduous task, so were the steps needed to help his little mind understand the adult situation he was working through.

Anyone who has ever attempted finishing drywall or painting a room will tell you how it’s no small feat to do it like the professionals. The beauty of smooth walls with no seams and a great paint job lives squarely in the details. That’s exactly what it’s like with helping your kids understand the divorce. It takes a lot of time, intense effort, and careful precision to get it right. 

Be prepared to build this house with your kids. Take the time to explain things over and over the exact same way you described it in the beginning. You’ll need more patience than you’ve ever could’ve imagined to get through the situation. It’s hard work explaining a painful milestone in your life to someone else but in the end it’s worth it because you’re helping build a memory and understanding of one of life’s worst things. 

While painful and difficult, the time and effort you put into working through the situation will be a thing you do together with your kids.

The time you put into helping them build that home in their mind will give you a place to live in it, and forever cement your role as loving parent as well as caring, supportive participant.