Talking to children about divorce and separation
Find tips and resources for parents and guardians going through a divorce or separation.
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Divorce and separation can be a stressful and confusing experience for children.
This information will help you answer your children’s questions about:
- how parenting time will be shared
- how they might be affected
Explaining divorce and separation
If you are going through a separation or divorce, your children may have questions about what these terms mean and how the law will affect them. You can use the definitions below to help explain legal terms that your children may not understand.
Separation happens when parents decide not to continue living together. They might be separated but not divorced.
Divorce means that parents are no longer married and are allowed to marry someone else.
Parents are still responsible for their children, even if they are separated or divorced. Parents going through a divorce or separation have to make lots of decisions about taking care of their children.
A separation agreement helps parents agree on questions that may come up during the separation or divorce process. These might include questions about:
- parental decision-making responsibility
- parenting time
Parents can change the separation agreement if they both agree.
Parental decision-making responsibility and parenting time
After separation or divorce, parents usually live in different homes. Children may live with one parent or split their time with both parents. Your children may have questions about what will happen to them after your living arrangements change.
Parental decision-making responsibility
One or more parents may have responsibility to make decisions about a child’s life and well-being. These decisions may relate to the child’s:
- religion and spirituality
- extra-curricular activities
Children are not expected to choose between their parents. It is up to parents to make these decisions, usually through a parental decision-making responsibility agreement. If they can’t agree, a judge will decide. The judge will consider several factors to determine what is best for the children and their well-being.
Parenting time is the time a child spends in the care of a parent. In most cases, the parent who doesn't live full time with their children after separation has the right to:
- spend time with them
- be told about their health and education
- know generally how they are doing
Joint parental decision-making responsibility
This means both parents share the responsibility of making decisions about raising their children. These include decisions about:
- medical treatments
Your children may live primarily with one parent and spend time with the other or they may take turns living with each parent.
Supervised parenting time
Supervised parenting time can be arranged if there are safety concerns during visits, or when children are exchanged between parents. When a supervised parenting time arrangement is in place, someone else must be present when you visit with your children.
Supervised parenting time can provide a neutral and safe setting for visits between children and a parent, or other family member who does not have decision-making responsibility. Parents can agree on a supervised parenting time agreement, or it can be required by the court.
The person supervising a parenting time visit could be:
- a friend or relative the parents agree on
- a paid professional, such as a social worker
- a trained professional or volunteer at a Supervised Access Centre
Supervised Access Centres provide a setting where visits and exchanges can take place under the supervision of trained staff and volunteers in a safe, neutral, and child-focused environment.
Free Supervised Access Centres provide supervised visits on-site or off-site.
Children’s Aid Societies may also provide supervised parenting time services for children in their care.
Child and spousal support
Child support is the money one parent pays to another parent after a divorce or separation.
Your children may have questions about how they will be financially supported during this time. Parents will generally decide on child support at the same time as parenting time and parental decision-making responsibility agreements. Children should not be included in discussions about money.
Parents are financially responsible for their children. The amounts that each parent pays may differ depending on the situation. Your child’s rights to support do not depend on whether a parent is able to spend time with their child.
The amount of child support may change if there are changes to:
- your children’s needs or
- a parent’s financial situation
Spousal support means one parent supporting (paying) the other parent. This may happen because one parent stayed home to take care of the children and now requires financial support, or it could happen for other reasons.
If one parent forgets to pay support, the other parent can remind them. Parents can also get help from the Family Responsibility Office which collects support payments and gives them to people who are supposed to get them.
Questions your child may have
Children will want to know what the separation or divorce means for your family, and how this will impact their daily life. They will have questions such as:
- Will I have to change schools?
- How often will I see each parent?
- What if my parents don’t agree about when I will see each of them?
- Will I need to go to court?
- Where can I find help?
Moving and changing schools
It’s important to explain to your children that it is not always possible, after separation, to stay in the same home. Sometimes it is even necessary to move to another school district.
If it is important to your children to remain in the same school, you should encourage them to talk to you about it. But the final decision is up to the parents.
How often they will see each parent
If parents have joint decision-making responsibility, children may live with one parent and spend time with the other. In almost all cases, the parent who doesn’t live with the children after separation has the right to:
- spend time with them
- be told about their health and education
- know generally how they are doing
In other cases, children may move between their parents' households. Parents make decisions about the frequency of the changes in parenting time based on what works best for the children and their own circumstances.
For example, if parents live near one another, it may be possible for children to go back and forth between their homes frequently.Sometimes children spend some or most weekends with a parent. Many parents agree that they will make special arrangements for summers, vacations, long weekends and holidays.
You may want to discuss these options with your children. You may also want to explain that it may not be possible for children to take turns living with each parent. Also, constant moving may be difficult for the whole family, especially the children.
If their parents disagree on parental decision-making responsibility and parenting time
If parents are unable to reach an agreement, they may want to see an expert trained to help with family issues, such as a:
- social worker
Parents should explain to children that this does not mean that there is anything wrong with them or their family. The expert may wish to speak with the children to get their point of view.
Sometimes, when parents continue to disagree, a court case is started. This does not necessarily mean that there will be a trial. In fact, even when court cases are started, most parents eventually make an agreement about parental decision-making responsibility and parenting time and don't have to go to trial.
Parents may also choose to see a mediator. This is someone who can help make a plan that might involve how children will share time with each parent, parental responsibility for childcare and other financial issues. Sometimes children are also involved in mediation sessions.
Going to court
Your children may have questions about whether the divorce or separation process will involve going to court. Sometimes parents may disagree on the terms of a parental decision-making responsibility agreement and may need to involve a lawyer or mediator. If parents continue to disagree, they may need to take the decision to a judge.
A judge will hear evidence about parental decision-making responsibility and parenting time, and any other things the parents have not agreed upon. The judge will decide based on what is in the children’s best interests.
Your children may want to know if they will need to be involved in a trial. This decision is up to the judge. Sometimes the judge decides it would be helpful if children have their own lawyer or for a clinician to investigate or assess and make recommendations to the court.
The judge could ask the Office of the Children's Lawyer to have a lawyer or a clinical investigator speak with your children.
Children’s lawyers represent the best interests of the child and do not represent or provide legal advice to parents.
Where children can find help
Your children may have a lot of questions about their feelings or the law. Try to encourage them to talk to you. If they don’t want to talk, suggest they reach out to people they know and feel comfortable around, such as:
- friends of the family
- teachers and guidance counsellors
- your family doctor
- religious leaders
They may also want to speak with their brothers, sisters or friends, especially those who have been through similar experiences.
Kids Help Phone
If your children wish to speak with someone privately, they can call Kids Help Phone. Kids Help Phone counsellors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. Children can contact a counsellor from anywhere, at anytime, for free:
Seek help from professionals
Your children may want to seek help from professionals. You will need to assist your child in finding professional help if it is needed. You can get help from professionals and organizations that specialize in helping children, such as:
- social workers
- Family Service Ontario
You can also get free information and answers to your children’s questions about separation and divorce and other family law matters at the Family Law Information Centre at a courthouse close to where you live.
Find additional resources related to children, divorce and separation. Please note this is not legal advice. If you are an Ontario resident you should only rely on legal advice, or speak with a lawyer, from Ontario.
- Families change: parent guide to separation and divorce (Ontario)
- What happens next? Information for kids about separation and divorce (Department of Justice Canada)
- Supervised Access Services (Ontario)