Talking to your Children about Separation

While a discussion with your spouse about separation is difficult enough, sharing this information with your children is particularly stressful for parents.

Many parents fail to provide their children with an age appropriate or well thought out explanation of what is happening. Or, parents may simply make an announcement and fail to give their children the chance to ask questions. Studies suggest that only 5% of parents actually sit down to have this thoughtful and important conversation with their children. Almost 25% of parents say nothing.

As family lawyers, we typically only hear about these conversations if it is managed poorly, or the children have improperly been brought into the surrounding conflict between their parents.

However, in other instances clients will request a referral to a professional to help guide them through this important conversation. Jointly or individually meeting with a child psychologist to create a plan for this conversation is a positive and child-focused strategy, and it sets the stage for a healthy pattern of future communications. Don’t hesitate to ask your family doctor, friends or lawyer for a referral recommendation.

While you’re planning this discussion, you may also want to consider the following advice

from Dr. Joan B. Kelly, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist with over 45 years of experience in research focused on children’s adjustment to family separation:

  • Think about the tone of your conversation. Despite how you each feel, can you both agree to contain your anger, accusations and harsh words in front of your children?
  • Telling children about separation should never be used as an opportunity to damage or destroy your children’s relationship with the other parent, no matter how angry you or your partner is. This can have tragic outcomes for children.
  • Basic reassurance about continued love and care taking after separation is important. Inappropriate details of why the divorce is happening are not.
  • If you can, work out a temporary agreement about what your living arrangements will be before you talk with your children. This helps them get a concrete picture of an important part of their future lives.
  • Don’t rush. Allow your children time to react. This conversation should be the first of many, and will help your children maintain a trusting relationship with you.

Dr. Kelly has published more than 130 articles and chapters, including a one classic book on the topic, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce (Basic Books, 1980)[Available Online].


  • Dr. Joan B. Kelly, Talking with Your Children about Separation and Divorce: Some Ideas and Tips to Help You Do It Right [1];
  • Dr. Joan B. Kelly, Top Ten Ways to Protect, Your Kids From the Fallout of a High Conflict Break-up [2];
  • CBC Doc Zone Summary, Bountiful Films’ documentary: How to Divorce & Not Wreck the Kids [3].
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