Children and divorce: How to help kids understand

Children and divorce: How to help kids understand



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Children naturally ask questions. “Why is the ocean blue?” “Do I have to go to school today?” and “How does it work?” are all questions that many parents can answer, often without a second thought.

Explaining a divorce to children, however, is a little more daunting.

A 30-second explanation may not be enough time to answer all of the questions, while weighing them down with too much information isn’t a good strategy either.

How do experts recommend explaining the changes children will soon notice in their family?

Therapist Julie Hanks, LCSW, owner and executive director of Utah's Wasatch Family Therapy, recommends explaining the difference between “real” and “ideal” during that initial conversation.

“I think it's really tough to explain the importance of commitment in marriage to your children when you have chosen divorce. What children experience emotionally through their parents' relationship is a lot more powerful than what is taught with words. That being said, I do think it's important to let your children know that you took your marriage seriously and you took your decision to divorce very seriously, too. It wasn't some haphazard decision.”


It's important to let your children know that you took your marriage seriously and you took your decision to divorce very seriously, too.

–- Julie Hanks, therapist


Being honest and open with children helps keep communication lines open, and Hanks says explaining the divorce with an analogy can help children better visualize the situation. Keep the conversation direct and age-appropriate, and remember to stay positive.

“Divorce is very difficult to explain to kids,” says Jon, a divorced father from Draper. “They need to be left out of all details and just know that you’re still there for them and that they can count on you to still be their dad.”

How can parents identify what their children need emotionally after the divorce is finalized?

Often, parents are flooded with a new set of emotions as a different set of responsibilities comes into play. One parent is dealing with new living arrangements, while the other parent may needs to take on employment, and there is often a strong sense of loneliness that lingers well after the papers are signed.

Even though lives are hectic and emotional for newly single parents, Hanks encourages parents to keep a watchful eye on their kids’ emotions too. “It is particularly hard for parents to identify their child's emotional needs after a divorce when parents are flooded with their own emotions about the situation. Parents should watch for changes in behavior or mood as a signal that their child may need some additional help dealing with the divorce”

In the “Quick Help for Families in Transition” guide at UpToParents.org, experts say parents must focus on the kids and the future. To do that requires compartmentalizing the feelings of hurt while tending to the emotional needs of the children. “Emotionally, all children need permission to love both parents, to spend time with both parents and to be kept out of any adult conflict relating to the divorce,” Hanks said. “They also need permission to feel all of their feelings and to be able to go to both parents for comfort and reassurance.”

Andrew Johnson is a writer, former radio reporter, avid outdoorsman and single father. He makes his home in Salt Lake County and now runs a local news, weather and traffic information website at NewsUtah.org.

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