Divorce: how to talk to children?: That is it, your decision is made: you are going to get divorced. How to announce the news to children? Which words to choose? How to anticipate their reactions? We take stock with the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Sylvie Angel.

Divorce: how to talk to children?
Divorce: how to talk to children?

This is a painful but necessary moment: now that you have decided to divorce, you must explain it to your children, to anticipate the changes that will occur in the family sphere.

For them – whatever their age or degree of maturity – it is a thunderclap: even if the word “divorce” had already been pronounced before, it now imposes itself as a frightening reality. Sylvie Angel *, psychiatrist, family therapist, and psychotherapist gives us some advice:

The announcement of the divorce must be made with all the children, in order not to give the feeling that some are privileged or rejected about the others. It also ensures that every child hears accurate information, not distorted by the words of his / her brothers and sisters!

Also (ideally!) Both parents must be present to communicate the information and answer the questions together. They thus show that they are already forming a “parental team” United. A good way to anticipate co-parenting.

If the communication is complicated, or even very aggressive, prepare your speech with your (future) ex-spouse beforehand: it is out of the question to add tensions in an already challenging context.

Choose the right time and the right place: preferably around a table, after dinner, quiet. To avoid absolutely: in the morning, before leaving to the school.

What should we tell them?

“It is crucial not to explain the reasons for the separation, not to give details about the intimacy of the couple – for example on the infidelity that led to this separation,” Sylvie Angel explains. This could lead children to take sides for either parent in this couple conflict that does not concern them. ”

On the other hand, we must tell them some essential things. First, remind them that they have nothing to do with it: they have made no mistake for the separation to happen. Then explain to them – calmly but firmly – that the decision has been carefully considered, that it is evident, decided and definitive.

“Very soon, we have to develop the logistical questions: how will the custody, the two houses, the weekends and the holidays be divided …” If necessary, if the child is big enough (from 6-8 years old), We can use a map of France and a calendar, concrete and reassuring materials.

Reactions by age

From 0 to 3 years:

Toddlers necessarily have a very limited understanding of the situation. It is rather the sadness and stress of the parents that make them realize that something serious is happening.

The most important: Keep the same rhythm of life in everyday life: we keep the same hours of bedtime and up, the blanket, the nanny … Moreover, we are present to the maximum to reassure him.

To monitor sleep disorders, a possible regression of acquired, high aggressiveness.

From 3 to 6 years

At this age, children go to kindergarten: in contact with other kids and other adults, they have a universe separate from that of their parents. The word “divorce” does not mean anything yet: it is the changes in the organization that will testify to the situation.

Most important: Make sure that they understand that the separation is definitive: the child will indeed try to “comfort” his parents. Moreover, we also take the time to answer their (many) questions.

To watch unusual silence, conflicts with parents, increasing aggressiveness, somatization (stomach ache, headache …).

From 6 to 10 years

Children are better able to identify themselves in time and space. They understand organizational changes. The mistress or teacher can be valuable allies to help them overcome this difficult period.

The most important: Include them in the organization of their “new life”: we plan with them, we show them their “second house” on a map … Moreover, we reassure them because they risk guilt.

A monitor: the academic difficulties, of somatization, vis-à-vis aggression of one or both parents, deemed “responsible” divorce.

From 9 to 12 years old

At this age, children need to understand what is going on. They want to be “actors” of the separation: to comment on the mode of custody, to discover the reasons for the breakdown, or even to choose a guilty one between the parents, to revolt against the decision … Without excluding them from the discussion, it is essential “Reframing” their role as children.

Most important: To consider them as partners in dialogue in their right. Explain to them the detail of the new organization, to remain neutral in words, to let it “empty its bag.”
To be monitored: a devaluation, academic difficulties, a phase of depression, eating disorders.

More generally, it should be noted that many children apparently show no emotion at the time of the announcement: in general, the reactions occur afterward in a non-verbal way. They must “digest” the information, like mourning. This can be a long one.


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