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6 Tips for Talking with Your Kids About Divorce

getting-doughnutsThis post was originally intended for Man of the House, but it’s kind of personal and so I’d rather share it with you here.  It’s a bit off my usual focus here, but family is important…

“Daddy, why don’t you and mommy live together anymore?”


About a year ago, that question stopped me in my tracks. It came from my son, Kaden, who was two years old at the time.  I can remember noticing what seemed to be a sad look on his face while we prepared dinner one evening.  I was heartbroken by such a valid and genuine question from my little guy.

But it got me thinking.

Divorce is hard on kids of any age. I remember growing up in a split home, during the late-80s and early-90s, and dealing with issues of low self-esteem and lack of trust.  I also always seemed to have trouble making friends at school.  My parents split when I was five and the sudden changes in routines, locations and home life hit me pretty hard.  There were occasions where I would get sick to my stomach for no apparent reason other than being stressed and upset.  The upholstery in my Opa’s Volkswagen Golf would ultimately pay the price (more than once).

Kids Remember More Than You Think

Kaden’s mom and I split not long before his third birthday.  We thought that because he was so young it might be easier for him. Maybe, we hoped, he simply wouldn’t remember how things were before the marriage ended.  We were even fortunate enough that the marriage ended on good terms.

Unfortunately, the consensus of experts is that most children gain the ability to recall memories somewhere between the ages two and five years old.

Taking that to heart, I think it’s a safer bet for parents to err on the side of caution.  Even at a young age, our kids are aware of their surroundings, the decisions we make as parents and even snapshot-style memories of specific events.  That’s a rather scary notion to think about when you’re faced with the decision to split a family.

So what can you do as a dad?  Are there overarching guidelines you can follow to make things as easy as possible for your child?

Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the past few years that might help:

  1. When Kaden wants to talk about the divorce, I drop everything.  Eliminating all the distractions lets him know he has my full attention.  At times, we even try to find a spot where he and I can be alone for one-on-one time.  It also helps me to get down to his level so we can talk as friends would.
  2. I’ve learned to listen to his questions and be patient.  Sometimes we find the words he needs together.  If he decides that he wants the subject to change, it’s his call.  I try to let him lead.  Over time, as his language has developed, his questions have gotten deeper.  His responses have also become much more insightful.  It’s been wonderful to watch his comprehension develop.
  3. I always make sure to never be disrespectful when referring to Kaden’s mom.  This is probably one of the most important things that divorced parents need to remember.  It’s not uncommon to have disputes or disagreements with your ex, but always respect your co-parent.  The relationship they have with your child is real and it’s important.
  4. Drawing pictures together can help aid in your explanations and answers.  This is not only a good way to help boil down a complex situation, but it’s also an activity you can share as you talk.
  5. Make every effort to practice good communication with your ex.  Kaden’s mom and I have been very fortunate to have remained good friends.  However, this isn’t always the case.  I do know this: ex-spouses who can find ways to stay civil, respectful and work together as parents, will see the positive effects of such effort in their children.  It takes work, but it’s totally worth it.
  6. Get doughnuts.  While I’m not a big fan of junk food, getting doughnuts on the way to school is one of Kaden’s favorite things to do with me.  The 20 minutes we have sitting in Tim Hortons creates a perfect situation for us to talk about anything he wants.  Ironically, it’s become a special place in our routine at least once a week.  In reality, the spot or activity doesn’t matter as long as you are getting some one-to-one time outside of home.  Find your own special place.

What would you add?   What has helped you talk with your kids about divorce?

  • Katherinefaith

    Let them know that the situation saddens you too, that they aren’t alone in how they feel. They shouldn’t feel like this huge change in life affected only them, this way they will not feel isolated in their feelings and others having similar feeling validates their own. No need to sit around crying all the time but let them know that they are not alone.

  • Amberharloff

    Nate, great great article. Its so great to see a Dad dedicated to healing his child through patient and thoughtful conversations! I would add
    1) Allow child to vent, react, and be angry. I too have a friendly situation, but I find over the years at different ages their reactions will be different, and allowing them to have whatever feelings they need to at the time is important. BUT also to give them the tools to move on! Alot of the times I find by parents not giving them the tools to move on, it may keep them in that emotional state for too long, stunting their emotional healing.
    But you are right constant open conversation and creating YOUR place to do that is key. Thanks for sharing!!!

  • nateriggs

    I totally agree with that and thanks for adding it in. I think it means the world to them if they know that you understand how they feel and feel things with them.

  • nateriggs

    Thanks for adding in. It took Kaden (and me) a while to get over anger. It was a tough year. But now I look at him play and talk and it seems like he was able to come to terms on his own timeline. It takes emotion work on both ends…

  • Catherine Hilker

    While I’m not a parent, I would agree that it’s important to answer children’s questions honestly in the manner appropriate to their age. Answering children’s questions honestly, also validates their concerns & doing so with respect. That’s always an important character development tool in my book.

    Thank you for your thoughtful piece.

  • nateriggs

    What’s interesting is that a lot of the same principals that make sense in parenting and family life, also apply to the business world. Who knew? :)
    Thanks for chiming in Catherine.

  • Rachel Tayse

    Very thoughtful post. My number one tip for talking about kids with fears about anything is to reassure them that they are loved.

    I find that talking to kids about difficult situations it is sometimes easier through a story book. Sometimes referring to a character comes more quickly than talking about a personal situation.

    I don’t have any personal recommendations, but here’s a list from Amazon:

  • Matt Heffner

    Nate, thanks for the very personal post. I particularly liked #3 as it is very tough for kids to find themselves in the middle of their parents bitterness especially when they are young and still trying to figure it out.

    And I very much agree that many principals in life carry over to business as well. It is a very connected world!

  • nateriggs

    Thanks for joining in Matt. I was one of those kids “stuck in the middle”. When Kaden’s mom and I split, doing everything possible to prevent that was the first pact we made…

  • nateriggs

    Nice! Thanks for the list. I find it interesting that stories are good at helping to talk to and tach kids about difficult things. The same is true for brands in business :) Think Zappos…

  • Jim Brochowski

    As a child of divorce myself I can’t help but recall the difficulty of understanding all the why’s, and I really do wish that somebody had taken the time with me that you’re taking with Kaden. It really can be, (and obviously has been) quite a process. The how’s and the what’s are not nearly as important as the time. I like that you let Kaden work on his own terms, and that you’re still actively involved in the process.

    As adults it’s easier to see the process and the rationale, but for kids everything is more immediate – right now. Working in their time frame becomes that much more important to allowing us to help them see and then realize the long term. But still taking the time is most important.

    Really nice post Nate. I’m glad you shared this.

  • Emily Breder

    My parents also divorced when I was five. In the end, I was fortunate enough to have 4 parents- my parents and their spouses- who cared for my sister and I very thoughtfully. Even thought they didn’t always get along, they sheltered us from that aspect until we were well into adulthood and had children of our own.

    It makes a huge difference. You’re doing a great job as a Dad, and being transparent about personal issues online to help others shows your depth of character.

  • nateriggs

    Thanks for the comment Emily. It’s inspiring to hear from someone who was in my sons position once. I’m glad your parents made the extra effort :)

  • nateriggs

    Thanks Jimmer. Still, I spend most of my time being a dad, thinking that I’m doing things wrong. I’ve heard that’s normal. The time I do get with Kaden and Jacob is the best time…

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  • Matt Heffner

    I was one of those kids as well and even in my 20s still find myself there once in awhile. I give you guys a lot of credit for being aware of that. It will especially pay off as he grows into his teens.

  • Matt Heffner

    I was one of those kids as well and even in my 20s still find myself there once in awhile. I give you guys a lot of credit for being aware of that. It will especially pay off as he grows into his teens.

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  • Canalgirl

    Congratulations Nate that you knew from the beginning how to listen to Kaden and care about what he has faced early on. My Mom wouldn’t even tell me the truth, let alone listen to my questions when she married my step-dad when I was three after divorcing my dad when I was two. I knew my whole childhood something was not ok, and it wasn’t until I was 10 an Aunt told me the truth. You have give Kaden a great gift every day!

  • Molly Borchers

    Great post, Nate. My parents divorced when I was two and it was confusing for me to go back and forth between households at such a young age. Many people experience this situation and don’t know how to deal with it, so your advice and personal experience is appreciated, I’m sure.

  • nateriggs

    Thanks for sharing that Molly. :)

  • Tyler Durbin

    My parents also divorced when I was 2. Actually, now that I think about it…I really don’t know when they did divorce…I know I was super young as I don’t have a single memory of them together or even the house we lived in when they were together.

    My dad wasn’t involved much until I got into sports in late grade school. We constantly clashed while I was growing up through middle and high school and at two different time didn’t talk for just shy of a year (even though we only lived 3 miles apart). It wasn’t until I went away to college that we became close and started to understand each other. It would have been nice if he had taken more time to help my mom and I (even if they were divorced). The result was that all my childhood memories of my father are negative (even if we do have a great relationship today).

    I’m so happy to hear that you and Kaden are able to connect at such an early stage…the advice and teaching you get from a father when you’re a child are invaluable. And….All the lessons I’ve learned from my parents aren’t from them sitting me down and talking to me, it’s from observing them…I think a lot of parents forget that.

    • nateriggs

      it’s hard to remember, but kids are always watching. Actions, not words make the difference…