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Explaining Divorce to your Children

Children need and want to know why their parents divorced. As they begin to understand, most children become more accepting of the drastic changes in their lives.

In many families, however, children have been provided with very little information about the divorce. Some parents assume that their child: know the “whys” as well as they do themselves. After all, the parents assume, each child has been a part of the family and has experienced many of the same events as the parents. Other parents want to protect their children from experiencing or even knowing about unhappy or unpleasant events and therefore decide to tell them very little about the actual reasons for the divorce. Still other parents find the divorce to be so traumatic that it is difficult for them to talk to their children about at all.

Children Need and Want to Know Why Their Parents Divorced.

On the other hand, parents sometimes tell their children too much about the causes of their divorce. Often when a parent is very hurt an desperately needs a confidant, he or she will turn to a child as one woman to an adult friend. One eleven year old girl remembers her mother getting her up in the middle of the night and driving with her through: the city trying to catch her father with his girl friend. This same girl was forced to call various taverns and women’s homes in search of her father. Although this example may appear extreme, it is not uncommon for a very isolated parent to over-involve a child.

Children Can understand to Some Degree All of the Reasons for Their Parents’ Divorce.

Neither extreme – “Don’t tell the children anything” NOR “Get your children on your side” – is what the children need.


There are a few basic rules for discussing your divorce with your children.

  • Tell each child what he or she can understand for his or her age and maturity. The ability to intellectually and emotionally understand certain aspects of your divorce will differ for your child at different ages. Most four year olds can barely understand the concept of divorce if they even know the word they simply think it means “Daddy and Mommy don’t live together”. By the time children are six or seven, they may realize that lawyers and courts are involved and that divorce has meant a lot of changes for the family. By age eleven or twelve, children are very interested in how custody is decided. Older school age children have developed a sense of fairness, and they may want to be sure visitations and custody are equitable.
  • Always tell your child the truth. When your child asks you something about the divorce always answer as honestly and completely as possible, taking into consideration what the particular child can absorb. Fabrication will he discovered sooner or later, and they will only confuse your child about the real reasons for the divorce. Dishonesty about the divorce will also cause your child to doubt your other statements.
  • Do not wait for your child to ask questions, take some initiative. Children are often reticent about bringing up divorce-related issues or questions. This does not mean they have no questions or don’t want more information. It may mean they are taking their cues from you. If you are open, not blaming, and calm in your discussions about the divorce, then pertinent facts, feelings and information will be shared naturally.
  • Do not use your child as an emotional confidant. Sharing the facts amid feelings a child needs to know to be able accept the divorce is not the same thing as discussing everything related to the divorce about which you may have a need to talk. When people divorce, they usually need to go over and over the numerous small events that lead up to the divorce and to share with someone all of the details of the divorce process. Don’t make your children bear this burden. They have enough to deal with already.

Children Need to Know That They Did Not Cause Their Parents’ Divorce and That the Causes of Divorce Are Parents’ Problems – Not Theirs.

To effectively explain your divorce to your children, you must understand the reasons for it yourself. It takes months or years of serious deliberation and unhappiness before most couples decide to divorce, and even then the reasons are not always clear even to themselves.

Sometimes either the husband or the wife decides that the unhappiness or pain that he or she is experiencing in the marriage is worse than the pain and changes the divorce will bring on everyone involved, it becomes obvious to him or her that divorce is the only solution. It is not always so understandable to the other spouse – or to the couple’s children.

Sometimes the decision to divorce is mutual. Both spouses decide the marriage is not working and they come to a divorce settlement amicably. They and their children begin to rebuild a different life, keeping disruptions to a minimum. Such divorces are rare, and even the children will experience losses and change.

Most divorces are the result of a complicated process between two people. Each divorce is unique, just as each marriage is unique. It is impossible to list all the reasons why marriages which start out with much promise end with so much pain. There are, however, several main causes of divorce in the United States… some of which are interrelated. It is the inability of a couple to communicate, compromise or change on these issues which finally results in the decision that they can no longer remain married.

Here Are Ten of the Basic Causes of Divorce, with Some Comments on How Each Effects Children:

  • Personality Differences. All people differ from each other psychologically. They have different personalities. Some people like things very neat and organized and become upset and even angry if anything is out of place. Other people are relaxed and productive in a messy home or office. Some are energetic in the morning, and others like to stay up late and really begin to come alive about ten or eleven at night. Some people need to share the details of daily living with others while others may not like to talk very much. There are people who like cold climates, others hot. There are those who like to socialize with groups, while others prefer solitary types of activities. Some people require a lot of approval and praise, and some do not seem to care what others think. These kinds of differences make us unique and interesting to each other. Your personality was formed by the interaction of many influences: where you lived growing up, how your parents relate to you and to each other, your health, your own biological make-up, how friends and teachers related to you and how you related to them, and whether you had brothers and sisters. These are just few of the factors that influenced the formation of your personality. When you married you assumed that your spouse was someone you could live with comfortably for the rest of your life. When you live with someone intimately for a long time, however, you really begin to know his or her personality. As your mate’s personality became known, perhaps you discovered differences that began to bother you. At first these differences may have appeared to be little annoyances. As time went on, however, they may have become more and more troublesome, until you finally felt you could no longer live with your partner. Some people – and your children may be among them – believe that such relatively minor concerns do not justify divorcing. Many have discovered, however, that personality and psychological compatibility is at the core of a close marital relationship. Your children might be capable of understanding this, if you take the time to work with them on it.
  • Value Differences. Just as each person has a unique personality, everyone has developed a philosophical stance on life that reflects his or her individual values and beliefs. What a person values and believes is very influential in the way he or she chooses to live life. One person may value security and frugality. For this person, saving money by using discount coupons or buying things “on sale”, staying at the same job, and owning a home and sticking close to it may be very important. Another person may value spontaneity and fun. This person may enjoy taking exotic vacations, going out often and staying late, making “impulse” purchases and not wanting the responsibility of having children. A person may believe mankind is basically good; this person will be trusting and hopeful. Another may believe most people are basically “bad” and thus be suspicious and on-guard around others. When married people discover that some of their fundamental values or beliefs are not shared by their partners, disagreements and arguments may begin to fester. Money issues are frequently cited as a reason for divorce. Couples fight about not having enough money or how money is to be spent. Below the surface of these recurring disagreements are usually opposing values not only about material possessions but also about work and social status. Religious differences are often a cause of marital problems. Sometimes varied doctrines or customs are the direct cause of friction. More often, the difficulties are less a matter of denominational affiliation or practice as they are different levels, fervor and involvement in religious activity. Child rearing itself is another area of strong values and beliefs. One spouse may believe, for example, that it is important to give child wide exposure to extracurricular activities, such as dancing, sports or scouts, while the other may feel that it is dangerous for a child to be over-involved in such activities. One may forbid dating before sixteen, the other may feel it is good for younger teens to have boyfriends or girlfriends. One may be pro-allowance, another opposed to giving children money unless it is earned. It is very difficult to change someone’s values. No one changes them as the result of an argument with a spouse. People decide to get divorced because they learn over time that their ideas on a wide variety of matters are significantly different from those of their spouse and because they can find no mutually acceptable way to reconcile or respectfully accept these differences. Children are often caught in this conflict both before and after the divorce. They can understand these differences, however, without being forced to side with either parent.
  • Another Person. Many marriages end in divorce when one of the partners falls in love with another person. When this happens the partner who been left usually feels devastated. The parent with the new relationship will want the children to know and like his or her new love partner and the “new couple” may want to include the children in activities. The other “dumped” parent often feels rage and contempt for the third party and will try to recruit the children to his or her side.When one partner falls in love with someone else, it is usually because there were already considerable personality and value differences in the marriage. For at least one spouse, the relationship was already dead. Children can learn to accept this even if it is difficult for them to understand at their age. What they do not need is for one parent to use them as a weapon to punish the other. As comforting as this may seem (“I have an ally against my former spouse”), it is emotionally very bad for a child.
  • Excessive Drinking and Abuse of Drugs. Substance abuse is a disease that touches many families. This illness may contribute to the events leading up to the divorce. Excessive drinking or drug use often result in violence, automobile accidents, loss of employment and physical illness. There are, however, many substance abusers who do not miss work and are never violent, yet their drinking or drug consumption does numb their feelings. They remove themselves emotionally from the family, being unavailable as a companion, friend parent, or lover. Children almost always see the results of this disease, even if they do not realize the causes. With help, they can understand it as a reason for divorce.
  • Physical, Sexual or Emotional Abuse. There are people who have low self-esteem, are quick to anger and easily frustrated. In a marriage these people can become abusive to their mates and/or children. In many eases, this tendency can be traced to their own childhood experience of abuse or neglect. Regardless of the reason a person is abusive it is always damaging for both the other spouse and the children to remain in such a situation. The most common type of abuse occurs when men – who are stronger and have been given cultural messages or superiority – abuse a woman. There are women, however, who have been excessively cruel and abusive to their passive husbands. Another tragic pattern is when one or both parents are abusive to their children. If you or your child were abused during your marriage, it is important for the children to be able to discuss the fear and anger they felt at those times and also to share the sense of sadness and relief when the family finally separated to become safe. Many children who have been abused need and greatly benefit from professional counseling.
  • Career Conflict. Excessive career demands on one or both partners or conflicting career choices sometimes place stress on the marital relationship. Sometimes one spouse or the other will put all of his or her energy into the job, leaving little for the family. In the extreme, this become the disease of “workaholism”. The need to move with a job – especially from city to city – or to travel extensively can add the pressures on a marriage. Special problems caused by the need for day care can add to the conflicts, and children sometimes come to the conclusion that are causing the marital conflict, by the very fact of their existence.
  • Financial Pressures. Decline or loss of family income or assets may prove to be too much pressure for the marriage to endure. The loss of money does not in and of itself cause the divorce. It is rather the stress caused by constant confrontation by bill collectors, bankruptcy, the loss of the family home or business, which can result in a loss of self-esteem and increased family instability. Children also experience this financial pressure and again can be made to feel that they are partly to blame for the family’s financial problems and therefore for their parents’ divorce.
  • Homosexuality or Bisexuality. People with homosexual or bisexual leanings sometimes marry and even have children. As the years pass, these people may experience the stress of not being able to express their true sexual longings. Sometimes the desire to be more honest about their sexual preference results in the termination of their marriage. Knowing of a parent’s homosexuality or bi-sexuality may cause special adjustment problems for school age children.
  • Immaturity. Some couples marry young – before their adult personalities have formed and before they. have had an opportunity to experience variety of social experiences. These people were simply not mature enough to make the lifelong commitment of marriage. It often happens that one partner may grow emotionally or intellectually while the other remains basically the same as when they were married. At about the age of thirty, or thirty-five, one or both of the partners may simply feel bored or tired of the marriage and want to get out to have new, fresh experiences. To family, friends, and even their children, this may not appear to be a good reason to divorce. Yet for the person, the prospect of living for more years with a partner in a deadened relationship seems untenable.
  • Mental Illness. When one partner has a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, the other partner may decide to divorce so that he or she can build a life with more stability. In these situations the healthy spouse may feel guilty deserting a mentally ill person, and the children might even blame that spouse for being unfaithful. It may, however, be the only step possible to create an acceptable environment for the healthy spouse and the couple’s children.

Children can understand to some degree all of the above reasons for their parents’ divorce. What is most important is that the reasons be presented to each child individually and geared to the child’s age and maturity. Explanations should be done in an honest manner yet without giving the child details he or she neither requests nor can handle. This takes some initiative and skill on the part of the parent.

If both you and your former spouse basically see the reasons for the divorce in the same way, your children will be receiving similar messages from each of you about the reasons for the divorce. If you each see the deterioration process of your marriage very differently your child will, of course, be receiving conflicting messages. Your child may even conclude that one of you is lying, when actually both of you are basically telling the truth from your own perspective. In that case, your children may need extra help in making sense of why two people they trust and love think so differently.

The above information was excerpted from the workbooks: Kids are Non-divorceable, Tots are Non-divorceable and Teens are Non-divorceable and is used with the permission of the author Sara Bonkowski, Ph.D.

Dr. Bonkowski is Associate Professor of Social Work at Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois and the founder of the Myrtle Burks Center for Clinical Social Work in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She may be reached at: (630) 469-2000.

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