6 Phrases Psychologists Want Divorced Parents to Stop Saying to Their Kid

Illustration of a photo of a happy couple ripped down the middle
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Navigating the divorce process—the lawyers, the mediators, the courts, the finances—is no fun. Even more reason to brush off or sugarcoat the severity of The Situation when your kids ask about it, right? But as exhausted as the topic may be to you, sweeping the facts under the rug can have the opposite effect on your family. If the goal is a peaceful home where your children can learn resiliency in the face of change, concealing the truth won’t get you very far. Ultimately, you want to provide a sense of safety for children to ask questions and share emotions. To get there, these psychologists suggest nixing these six phrases from your vocabularies.

Meet the Experts

  • Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD., is a licensed psychologist and wellness consultant in constant pursuit of helping others achieve success on their own terms with less stress and burnout.
  • Dr. Lauren Cook is a licensed Clinical Psychologist with a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and her Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy. Dr. Lauren appears frequently in the media to provide commentary while also working with adults, couples, families and teens.

1. “Your dad” or “Your mom”

That tiny addition of the word "your" creates an otherness in the family. Think about it: When you were together, you probably just referred to your partner as “Mom” or “Dad” when talking to the kids. Says Dr. Cook: “The child is now hearing a separateness in who they're connecting with. While it is true that the divorce does, in fact, create changes in the family dynamic, honoring how the child sees the parent can help keep a sense of cohesion.”

What to say instead: Nix the “your.” It may feel like raising a white flag in a battle you really want to win, but ultimately, it’s small trade-off for a much healthier reward: positive co-parenting.

2. “The Situation”

Maybe you’re FaceTiming your sister with the kids when she brings up The Situation and how The Situation is affecting everyone. This might feel like a smart way to shield young kids from hard things, but, as Dr. Rubenstein shares, “When you speak in code, it makes it seem like something sinister is going on.” The more you try to obfuscate what’s happening, the more anxious and curious your kids may become.

What to say instead: Says Dr. Rubenstein: “While the word ‘divorce’ might not mean anything to a kindergartener, there are ways to explain it less abstractly using easy analogies [CD1] and referring to divorced parents your child might know.”

3. “It’s not about you.”

When your instinct is to keep your children from thinking they’re to blame for the divorce, this probably feels like a totally logical and constructive response. But according to Dr. Rubenstein, this phrase isn’t specific enough to quell the “well then what caused it?!” anxieties, because for kids, something had to cause it.

“Children have active imaginations and can conjure many scenarios that have nothing to do with the cause of the divorce,” she tells us. “It’s not about you” also negates the fact that the divorce very much involves your kids, which, Dr. Rubenstein explains, can wind up complicating your child’s feelings and experiences and what they’re willing to share with you.

What to say instead: Be honest about what it is about. Depending on your child’s age, you can package this appropriately. For instance, Dr. Rubenstein shares, you can explain that the reason for the divorce is that Mom and Dad are not getting along and don't feel they can resolve it. Grown-ups have adult issues that sometimes cannot be solved, as hard as they try.

4. “This is a good thing.”

Sure, it's probably a good thing for the family in the long-term, but from a child's perspective…not so much. This phrase sweeps their pain under the rug. “Almost every child wants their parents to be together under one roof. Even if one parent has addiction issues, anger issues, or other things a child can observe, most children want to believe in the fairytale that somehow things will all work out. It is challenging for them to see divorce as a benefit,” explains Dr. Rubenstein.

What to say instead: Acknowledge your children’s feelings and the reality of the situation by calling it what it is: really, really hard on everyone. From there, try to share your perspective by being honest about your decision as a last resort made to have the children grow up in a home without fighting or discord. Explain, Dr. Rubenstein says, that you can be a better mother or father when you are happy as an adult. 

5. “You will get double everything!”

Look, your kids are probably savvier than you give them credit for. “While a parent may feel this is soothing, most kids want two parents in the home instead of more material things or two houses to visit on custodial days,” Dr. Rubenstein says. This phrase is another example of one that attempts to minimize your child’s feelings and the scope of the real-life events—even if it’s done out of your deep desire to protect them.

What to say instead: “Emphasize that they will get more quality time with each parent individually,” instructs Dr. Rubenstein. “If children are going to a second home some nights a week, try to get them excited about decorating a new room and having a second place to call home. If one parent is looking at new living accommodations, if the kids are old enough, take them with you to get their feedback and make sure they like their potential new home.” 

6. “Not much will change.”

This is a lie. And if you tell children a lie, warns Dr. Rubenstein, they are less likely to trust you in the future. “For a child, their world will alter as they know it.”

What to say instead: Be honest that things will change, but that change is sometimes good. Yes, they will miss certain traditions or family structures, concedes Dr. Rubenstein, but play up the realistic advantages they can expect. They will also model your behavior and reactions in the face of change and learn resiliency.

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Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...