When parents separate or divorce, it can be difficult for children. Your child may feel sad, confused or worried. How you handle the changes will be important for your children.
What should we tell our children about our separation/divorce?
- Plan how you will tell your children. If you can, it’s best to do it together. Think about a good place and time to talk. Be honest, but also keep in mind your child’s age when deciding how much to tell him. Younger children will need less detail. Older children might ask for more information.
- Reassure your child that you both still love her and that you will both go on caring for her. Let her know there will be many opportunities to spend time with both parents.
- Be very clear that your child is not the cause of the separation. Young children, especially, will worry that they are to blame for the separation or divorce. Explain that this is an adult problem and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. He also needs to know that there is nothing he (or others) can do to change it. Help him understand that the divorce is final.
- Encourage your child to talk openly about her feelings. When she talks, listen carefully and try not to interrupt. It’s normal for children to have trouble expressing their feelings, so be patient. Though it may be difficult, it’s important to let her be honest about her fears and concerns. Answer any questions as honestly as you can.
If your child feels uncomfortable talking to you, help her find someone she can trust such as another family member, doctor, psychologist or social worker.
Tell your child only what he needs to know. Don’t discuss adult decisions or argue in front of your child. Children should not be involved in any meetings you have with a lawyer or others involved with the separation or divorce.
What can we do to make the transition easier?
- Discuss visitation arrangements with the other parent before you suggest a plan to your child.
- Talk openly about how the living arrangements will change. Be clear about who your child will live with and when. He has a right to know the decisions that are being made on his behalf. Remember that plans may need to change as your child grows older. Discuss the living arrangements with an older child or teen and be willing to respect his feelings about where he wants to live.
- Keep routines as normal as possible. Children feel safe and more confident if they know what to expect. Work toward creating routines that both households will follow.
- If you have more than one child, spend quality time alone with each child.
- Don’t speak negatively about the other parent to your child, extended family, or friends. If you are struggling with your own feelings and emotions, find a supportive friend or counselor to talk to.
- Children may feel like they are alone in this situation. If possible, seek out other families with “two homes” so that your child can see that she isn’t the only one whose parents live apart.
- Be polite when your child is picked up or dropped off. If you are loving and reassuring, it may help him cope with the transition.
- Let your child talk to the other parent whenever she needs to. Try to show interest in the time she spends with the other parent. Don’t suggest with words or actions that your child is disloyal if she enjoys the time away from you.
- Respect reasonable limits set by the other parent. Don’t undermine the other parent’s authority or reverse any decision he or she has made. Discuss rules and discipline with the other parent so that you’re as consistent as possible in both households.
- Don’t expect your child to act as a messenger or go-between. He shouldn’t be expected to give you information about the other parent’s activities, friends or income.
- Your children may feel like their *relationship with extended family, such as aunts and uncles, is also changing. Recognize these feelings and give lots of opportunities to keep those connections.
- Keep other important adults in your child’s life (teachers, daycare providers, sport coaches) informed about what’s happening so that they can watch for any warning signs that your child is having trouble coping.
- Give important medical and school information to the other parent. Try to attend meetings and appointments together so that you can both be informed.
When should I call the doctor?
It will take time for your child to adjust to these changes. A younger child might start behaviours she had already outgrown. For example, she might ask for a pacifier. Older children might be angry or feel overwhelmed by the change. These are all normal reactions, and should get better over time.
Warning signs that your child is having more serious trouble can include:
- sadness and depression,
- a change in eating or sleep habits,
- trouble at school, or
- aggressive behaviour.
If the behaviour continues or worsens, speak to your doctor.
There are many sources of support to help you and your children through this difficult time. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, relatives, and community or faith groups to ask for help.
It’s also important to make time for yourself and allow yourself time to adjust to the change. You need to be healthy and rested for your children.
What if there is a more serious problem?
Unfortunately there are times when a separation or divorce may be the result of abuse in a relationship or in your home. If this is the case, it is important that you find a safe place for you and your children to stay. A shelter for abused women may be available in your community and can offer the support you need.
See your doctor or contact the local child welfare agency if you think your child is being abused.
Additional reading for parents
- Children and family break-up, Canadian Mental Health Association
- Helping children and youth with divorce, Public Health Agency of Canada
- Centre for Research in Family Health, IWK Health Centre
- Families Change, Justice Education Society of BC
- Divorce and Separation: From the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
Additional reading for children
- Dinosaurs Divorce: A guide for changing families, by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
Reviewed by the following CPS Committees:
Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee
Public Education Advisory Committee
Last updated: May 2011