Helping Kids Understand Divorce
Divorce is hard on everyone involved, especially the children. Often, the most turbulent times for a child are the months before a divorce, when tensions are the greatest, separation occurs, and the child’s perceived world falls apart. The Catch-22 is that it is during this time when the child needs the most parenting and support and yet, the parents involved are the least able to meet and address those needs. Everyone is emotionally taxed and stressed. If you should find yourself in this unfortunate circumstance, here are some helpful pointers.
How to talk to your children about divorce:
- Be honest. This does not mean you have to give the gory details as to why you’re getting divorced, but be straightforward. For example: Your mom/dad and I are having problems and going to get a divorce.
- Reassure the children that it is NOT their fault. Divorce is the responsibility of the involved adults, not the children.
- Don’t place blame (see Ground Rule 2 below). Even though the reason for the divorce may seem blaringly like the fault of one party, try not to place blame. There are a few exceptions to this rule. If the reason involves abuse and the abusive parent will be prohibited from interaction with the child, it may be necessary to give an appropriate explanation—remember to be honest. These circumstances should involve a counselor who can help navigate these tricky waters.
- Listen and answer questions. Children who have parents that are splitting up will have lots of questions and concerns. Examples: Will you get back together? Am I moving? When will I see mom/dad? Be patient, this can be a confusing time for a child.
Ground Rules (assuming both parents are still involved):
Basic ground rules to fighting and parenting can make all the difference in how your children adjust to the divorce. Here they are:
- Do NOT fight in front of your children (or within ear shot).
- Never say anything disparaging about the other person (even though you may think it or have evidence of such), simply don’t go down that road. It creates turmoil and stress for a child to have negative feelings towards someone they love.
- Do not force children to take sides. Children will naturally have loyalty and love to both parents at some level. Do not force or create feelings of betrayal in a child by making the child choose sides.
- Do not communicate through the children. The “Tell your mom this,” or “let your dad know that…” puts children uncomfortably in the middle.
- Make big decisions about your child’s life and health together. Both parents have a right to be involved and have a say in major changes in the child’s life, even if that change happens on the other parent’s “time.”
Reactions to expect from your children
Divorce affects everyone a little differently. Even children within the same family can react vastly differently. It can be helpful to have a frame of reference for each age group. This age-specific information comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics publication in Pediatrics, Volume 138, number 6, December 2016: e20163020—I’ve simply summarized it here for you.
May be fussier, irritable, or listless, and have sleep and feeding disturbances. The normal separation and stranger anxiety that is seen around 6 months may be increased in the setting of divorce.
Separation anxiety and distress is amplified in this age, even in the setting of familiar/reassuring people (e.g., grandparents’ homes). Kids this age can experience eating and sleep disorders. It is also common to experience developmental regression, including accidents in potty-trained kids and speaking less.
In this age, children do not understand the concept of permanence, so they may ask for the absent parent repeatedly. It is common to see demanding and defiant behavior as well as sleeping and eating problems. Sometimes, there is a regression of milestones (just as in toddlers). They will test and manipulate parents. Four to 5 year olds may blame themselves for the separation, begin acting out, have nightmares, have more reluctance to separate, and fear they may be abandoned.
Children this age blame themselves for the divorce. They fantasize about the parents getting back together. They can be moody (e.g., withdrawn, angry) and have trouble in school. They can experience a sense of abandonment by the parent not at home.
While old enough to understand the reasons behind divorce, they may have trouble accepting it. They may try to take on adult responsibilities as a result. The whole gamut of reactions can be seen at this age, including: Aggressive delinquent behavior, withdrawal, substance abuse, inappropriate sexual behavior, and poor school performance. There may also be an increase in suicidal thoughts or attempts.
What can a parent do?
- Change as little as possible. Divorce creates unavoidable need for change sometimes. However, everything that can be left unchanged is best. If the child can live in the same house (with the same room and bed), have the same friends, have the same school, etc., the transition will go easier.
- Keep routine/rules. Work with the other parent to create a parenting plan, if possible. Children do best with consistency. Both houses should have the same homework expectations, bed time routine, rules about media time, chores, etc.
- Allow and foster continued relationships with both parents (assuming both parties are fit/capable).
- Seriously consider counseling. The little money spent on a great counselor (either for the child, parent, or both) can save lots in the long run in problems avoided.
- Keep the same pediatrician. If at all possible, see the same doctor. Your doctor knows the family dynamic, your child’s medical problems, and can help you identify when your child is struggling.