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This piece was originally published in 2016. It was updated in 2022.
For many domestic violence survivors, ending a relationship with an abusive partner means also going through a divorce. And when little ones are involved, it can be tough to know how to talk to kids about this big change, especially after they’ve endured the trauma of abuse.
So, how do you start this difficult conversation?
1. Start With the Truth
It may seem obvious but beginning with the truth is widely agreed to be the best first step. A protective parent might think it’s best to shield their child from the truth about domestic violence, but being honest with your children—in age-appropriate terms they can understand—will likely help them feel a greater sense of safety in the long run.
“There is a natural tendency to minimize the fact that children are affected by domestic violence,” Betsy McAlister Groves, founding director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center told DomesticShelters.org. “Young children are more aware than we, as adults, usually think they are. However, that doesn’t mean they understand what’s going on.”
Children often feel some responsibility for the abuse, so it’s important to explain that abuse is a choice the abusive parent makes, and it’s because of this choice that you’ve decided to live separately.
Daddy has a hard time controlling his anger. Hurting people is not OK. We deserve to live in a home where we feel safe.
Children may also feel conflicted about continuing to love the abusive parent. Reassuring children they are allowed to have more than one feeling is OK.
I understand you still love your dad. It’s OK. We can also be upset when he doesn’t make good choices.
Depending on the situation, professional counseling may benefit the protective parent and children to help sort through the complex emotions that can arise after domestic violence.
2. Prepare the Child for Changes to Come
When breaking the news to your kids that a divorce is happening, it may be helpful to prepare in advance what you want to say. Consider breaking down the conversation in a few points:
- Explain what divorce means.
- Emphasize it is not the child’s fault. Provide reassurance that they are loved.
- Walk them through what parts of their family will now look different (e.g., a parent living somewhere else)
- Tell them what will stay the same (e.g. their school, friends, extended family, pets)
- Prepare them for how much time they may be able to see the other parent.
- Allow them to ask questions.
If there is a protection order in place, be honest with your children that they won’t be able to see the other parent during that time because you want to keep them safe. Read, “Safety Planning With Your Kids” to learn more about involving them in safety planning.
3. Prepare Yourself for Push-Back, Confusion
Be prepared for some push-back from your children. They may not understand why a divorce or order of protection are necessary, and may even lash out at the protective parent. This is their way of coping with trauma and change, so try not to take it personally. Continue to enforce healthy boundaries and encourage children to work through strong emotions in other ways, such as writing, drawing or talking to another trusted person in their life (a good friend, a grandparent, a school counselor, etc.). Patience is especially important at this time.
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4. Find Resources, Apps That Can Help
DomesticShelters.org offers resources for parents to help kids cope with domestic violence and divorce. Check out these articles on:
- Helping kids understand domestic violence with picture books
- Teaching children that violence is wrong
- Explaining domestic violence to kids
- Understanding how exposure to trauma affects kids
- Breaking the cycle of violence
The popular children’s program Sesame Street offers a divorce app that can help younger kids especially understand and process divorce. You can download it here. Sesame Street also offers free worksheets and other printables surrounding divorce. It’s important to note that these tools focus on the general topic of divorce, and do not specifically discuss the challenges present when domestic violence is occurring or has occurred. You should tailor the information as you see fit to help children understand their unique circumstances.
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