How to discuss divorce with your young child?

Such a discussion is unfortunate, but in today’s world, much more common than perhaps it should be. Nonetheless, circumstances often beyond our control (although some would argue that whether or not to divorce is within our control), require such a conversation, which must be handled with a great amount of tact and thoughtfulness. Such a discussion with a young child about the fact that his or her parents will no longer be living together is truly sad, but also an opportunity to set the tone for the child’s future relationship with both parents and extended family. So how and what do we do? Therapeutic help and guidance can be invaluable. And while not therapists, divorce lawyers see these problems over and over and based on that, I offer my opinion, as a minor but hopefully useful contribution to the planning for such a talk.

As lawyers we are taught to simplify things. We must simplify complex legal statutes to make them easier for our clients to understand. We must also often simplify complex financial situations so that judges can understand what the marital estate is comprised of, so that they may divide it fairly. We must simplify our legal documents so that the legal arguments can be easily and quickly digested. They are referred to as “briefs” after all. But how do we help our clients explain divorce to a 3 year old? That is something parents must deal with and must get right, to help their children. Whether it is explaining divorce to a 3 year old, a 6 year old, or a teenager, it is never easy, especially when it’s your own divorce. And while I think I have some good suggestions, truly it is beneficial to work with a therapist you trust to help guide you through that most difficult, but most important discussion.

If you must discuss divorce with a teenager, at least they already know the concept. But to explain the concept of divorce to a child who does not yet, or has just begun to understand the concept of marriage, can be overwhelming. There are many good books (e.g. “When Dinosaurs Divorce”). But there are so many questions. As a non-therapist, but simply someone who has seen more than my share of divorce in my practice, my best suggestion is that there be a united front. Children want their parents to love each other and to get along. And at the very moment that a child must learn that parents cannot get along well enough to stay married, it might soften the blow for them to see that they can at least get along when it comes to their children. Unfortunately I see much too much of the opposite behavior. Parents trying to “beat the other to the punch”. To tell the child their side of the story.

Children want their parents to love them (and to love each other). And if parents disparage the other parent to or in front of a child, doesn’t that encourage the child to do the same (disparage the other parent) so that they can ensure the love of the criticizing parent? And isn’t that wrong?
Remember, the child is the sum of the two parents, so anything negative said about the other parent is in essence a complaint about a part of the child.

So as hard as it may seem, take a joint approach. Remind your child repeatedly how much you both love him or her. And as hard as it may be, compliment the other parent, in front of, and to the child. It may be hard, but certainly you can do it. Think about your own parents. How nice it was (or would have been) for you your own parents to be sweet to each other. To talk respectfully and positively about the other. Aren’t those the memories you want your child to have? Explain it together, politely and with as much love as you have ever expressed. You can do it. Your children deserve it and you have the capability.