Preparing a Child for Divorce

Preparing a Child for Divorce

Divorce specialist Roberta Morrison

Roberta Morrison

Your marriage went wrong and now you and your almost ex-spouse is seriously talking about divorce. You are trying to figure out all the details to make the process as smooth as possible. And one of the most challenging moments is to have “the big talk” with your children about it. How can you make it easier for a child to perceive the news? How will they react? How can you approach it without harming your children? In this article, we will discuss the dangers of telling your children about divorce and how to avoid them and also about general tips to help your children be ready for the changes in their lives.

How to Approach the Conversation with Children of Different Ages?

Children of different ages react to the news about divorce in a different way. You should have the same conversation with a preschooler and a teenager at different times. Here is what you need to know about it.

Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers (age 0-5)

Children of this age highly depend on their parents and caregivers. They are not able or limitedly able to understand complex events. Their understanding of cause and effect is very peculiar as they think the universe is turning around them. They don’t distinguish between reality and their fantasies. Because of a very short future perspective, children are afraid of talking about it. It’s very difficult for them to understand and talk about their feelings so they often react instead of talking.

The key point here is to make it as simple as possible. Remember that you were a child yourself and try to keep your explanations short and understandable for the child. Stick to the facts: who the child will live with; where the pet will live; when the second parent will come and visit. Be ready that children will ask many questions (especially if they are 3-5 years old).

Don’t expect to have a conversation, as the child will process the news. Make sure that your explanations don’t contradict each other every time. You need to be consistent and clear for the child.

Negative emotional reactions you should watch out for include irritability, whining, anxiety, and clinginess. Sometimes children can even temporarily unlearn their toilet skills or lose the ability to sleep all night long. What you need to do to minimize the negative impact is to give a child a sense of reassurance. Try to keep their schedule as stable as possible. It should be the same in both houses so the child understood that their life doesn’t change too much.

Schoolers (age 6-11)

Children of this age are already able to talk about their feelings even though they may have occasional difficulties with this. They have broader and less egocentric worldview but they still tend to blame themselves for the divorce. Their thinking is black and white at this age so they also can pick sides and blame one of the parents for the situation. For these children, a family is not the only social circle they live in. Friends, hobbies, and school become more significant.

When talking about divorce, make sure you are ready to answer questions your child will have and explain more complex categories like family, love, and separation so the child could understand them. Be calm (as much as you can) and help the child come with their emotions too.

As far as negative signs are concerned, you need to pay attention to fear, anger or sadness or some other clear displays of negative emotions. Sometimes children dream about getting the family back together and attempting to orchestrate the events. This has a negative impact on the healing process. So you need to let the child know that the divorce was an adult decision and they have nothing to do with it.

What you can do to help your school-age child to deal with the situation is to keep their routine stable and make sure that all the usual rules are followed. If they feel like it, talk about children’s feelings, but don’t push too much. You can also find some age-appropriate books and films about divorce to watch together and discuss after to ease the processing of emotions.

Pre-teens and teenagers (age 12-18)

This is a very difficult age for a child by itself, even if there are no complications such as divorce. The child is growing; they become almost an adult so they need to be treated appropriately. By this age, a child can understand more complex issues and will be asking lots of questions to get a better concept of what is divorce is, why it’s happening and things like that. Sometimes they even want to understand all the adult issues but you need to keep the adult stuff for adults as it will increase the child’s anxiety if they dig too deep.

Teenagers are very sensitive and want to be independent. They are somehow in the middle between childhood and adulthood. What they do is testing what they can do and how parents are going to react to their behavior. They can pretend that they don’t need you and don’t want to talk about the issues in your family. But they really crave love and connection with parents so make sure you leave all the communication channels open any time.

Negative emotions of anxiety and fear are often displayed and anger at this age. A teenager can become very irritable and sometimes even controlling, demanding for parents to report on where they are all the time. Often, they also have some physical symptoms as a reaction to the family situation. You need to be open and attentive to your child so they could talk about any struggles they have.

Tips for Parents

There are also some general suggestions that will help you prepare your child for the divorce easier. They are quite universal for all ages and situations and decrease chances for negative consequences for the child.

1. Get Ready in Advance

Preparation is the key to handling the conversation in the right way. Write a script of what you are going to say together with the other parent and practice it a few times before you actually talk to the children.

While talking, you need to be calm and concentrated so practicing may also help you deal with your own negative emotions. You don’t have to go into details. It’s enough to say that there were some adult issues you had with your partner and you tried to solve them. It didn’t work, so now you’ve made a decision to live separately. Keep it simple and consistent so the child didn’t feel confused.

2. Pick the Right Time

The conversation should have its time and place. Avoid holiday periods and important deadlines (tests at school, birthdays, anniversaries). You don’t want to create a connection between negative emotions and these important moments.

Make sure that you give your children enough time to adjust to changes so have the talk a couple of weeks before separation actually happens. Having such a transition period will make things smoother.

It should be a quiet conversation with no extra people around. Set aside an hour or so to give your child time and space to express their emotions and ask questions. Weekends are a good choice here. Arrange your plans so you could spend the rest of the weekend with the child to give support and reassurance.

3. Be a United Front

Both parents should be present during the conversation. Even if you are angry or resentful towards each other, forget about your own emotions for a while and work as a team for the sake of your child. It requires a certain level of maturity from both partners but is crucial for the children’s well-being.

Being a team means being polite and respectful to each other in front of the children. No matter how heated your conflict is, your children are not the ones to witness parents arguing. This experience will harm them more than the fact of parents getting divorced. So agree on the way you want to hold the conversation and put your child first.

4. Keep the Positive Focus

When delivering the news to the child, try to concentrate on the positive aspects of the situation. Explain that mom and dad will be happier living separately and the child will have two birthday parties and two Christmases. It often helps to deal with the loss of the usual family routine.

Another approach here that helps to lower anxiety is to focus on things that will stay the same - a child still has two loving parents, they will still spend special time together, daily routine and school schedule will remain the same. Divorce is very destabilizing so you need to create some “islands of safety” in children’s lives while they are trying to get used to the new format of the family.

5. Be Attentive to the Reactions

Unlike adults, children don’t speak about their feelings much - they prefer reacting. So monitor your child and look at how they behave after you told them the news.

You need to tell a child that any reaction they have is normal and understandable. Being upset and angry is OK when your two closest people decide not to be together anymore. Remember, all children are different and their reactions can vary. Some start acting as if nothing happened, some deny their hard feelings, some have other difficulties - at school, with eating or sleeping, self-care skills.

What you need to do with all these reactions is to give a child a supportive and safe environment to express them. Answer the questions they have, give them stability as far as seeing friends, favorite activities, daily routine and plans are concerned.

6. Help Them Cope

Children mourn the loss of the family they wanted to have, the picture of “me, mommy and daddy, all together”. They miss their usual family life and the presence of both parents near them every day. Children often dream about parents getting back together even though the adults explain that the decision is final. You should let your children know that their dreams about reunion are normal but explain that it’s not going to happen at the same time.

What you can do to help your children cope with the situation of divorce is:

Let them share their feelings. They need to know that you care about the way they feel. So encourage honesty and be open to talking.

Listen to them and help to identify the feelings. Children often lack the ability to explain what they’re feeling. So give them suggestions like “It seems that you are very upset now” or “I would be angry in such a situation. Is this how you feel?”. Face their feelings and show that you can stand them even if it’s difficult for you.

Validate the feelings. Any emotion is fine, and your children need to know that. When you say something like “I know that it upsets you” or “I can see that it’s painful for you,” you legitimize the emotions.

Offer help. There are many ways to give your child support at a difficult moment like this. To find the best one, ask your child. They might not give you a detailed instruction but will definitely say a few things that will help. It can be holding their toy, calling the other parent on the phone, drawing a picture or just talking and hugging.

7. Take Care of Yourself

Divorce is a very stressful event not only for children but also for adults. You experience colossal pressure right now as you need to deal with custody, finance, attorneys and emotional issues of the divorce. So you need to manage your own stress in order to help your children too.

So eat healthily, exercise, see your physician regularly to make sure you are in the best shape to help your children. They need you now more than any time but you won’t be able to give them love and support if you don’t take care of your own needs first.

8. Keep Privacy

Children are curious, it’s their nature. So they might try to find out more about what is going on in the family by reading your emails and papers, overhearing phone conversations and things like that. Make sure they don’t have access to anything they don’t need to know.

While having conversations with your ex in front of the children, be polite and civil. It’s very difficult, especially if the divorce happened because of cheating or betrayal. But avoid calling names and yelling at your ex when the children can see and hear you. Be a good example for them.

9. Be Consistent

A stable and consistent environment is essential for a happy and healthy childhood. And it becomes even more important of life-changing events like divorce. Try to avoid sudden events, quick separations and unpredictable changes in life routine. Meet with your partner and discuss how they will approach this matter so you have the same rules for your children in both houses.

10. Be Careful with New Family Members

Your divorce is a huge change in a child’s life by itself. And if you add to that a new girlfriend/boyfriend who will live with you and your children (maybe even with step-siblings), you create a way too difficult situation for a child. Adaptation takes time and you need to be attentive to your child’s need here.

If there is a plan to bring another parental figure into a child’s life, try to have some transition period and prepare your child to it. Otherwise, you will have a strong resistance from the child and risk having more developmental and emotional issues from their side. If you still decide to move on with your life right away, pay attention to the way your child acts to make sure you notice any negative changes right away.

11. Get Help

It’s not the time for you and your children to be alone and struggle on your own. If you feel that you lack understanding of what to do with your children and how to help them, find a psychologist or counselor to provide you the information and support you need.

It’s very important for you to have someone to rely on - it can be your therapist, a support group, religious community, friends. But it should never be your children who help you through a divorce. Even if they offer you their support and help, even if you think they are old enough to understand, they are still your children. And they need to see you as an adult who can help them in a difficult situation. So make sure you have other adults to vent to.

12. It Takes Time

Adaptation is a process, and every child has their own speed. So give your children time to adjust and assimilate changes in the family step by step. Children have a fantastic ability to get used to anything if they have enough support from their parents. It’s also important for them to have control over their own lives so let them choose things they can. This way your children won’t be overwhelmed with the divorce and adapt quicker.

Sometimes reactions appear a few weeks or months after the divorce. Pay attention to those and get help from mental health professionals.

Key Messages to Communicate

While talking with your child about the divorce, you need to have a certain position to show them. These are the most important points you should make during the transition period to make it easier for your child.

It has nothing to do with you.

Children tend to blame themselves for whatever happens in the family. So when preparing them for the divorce, you need to explain that divorce is an adult decision made by both parents to solve their adult problems. The conflicts occurring between mom and dad are not because of the child but because the adults have no agreement about certain issues. And even if it’s related to the child (parents disagree about bedtime, hobbies or place for vacation) - it doesn’t mean that the child is to blame. Mom and dad love the child and will do it no matter what happens between them.

No one is to blame.

The fact that the parents have issues doesn’t mean that someone is good and someone is bad. The parents tried their best to solve the problems, but it didn’t work. So instead of arguing about who is right and who is wrong, the adults found a new way so everybody had a calmer and happier life.

Mom and dad will always be your parents.

Whatever happens to the marriage, parents will stay parents for the child. There will be no one to ever replace mommy or daddy. The adults will be with the child and even if the life is changing, this will remain constant. Divorce doesn’t change the parent-and-child relationship, only the marital status of the adults.

You are safe and you will be.

A child’s life is transforming, so it’s natural for the little one to feel anxious, worried and insecure. And they need to know that despite all the changes and challenges they are safe and the parents will take care of them. Mom and dad will come up with a plan, and the child is a very important part of it too. So there is nothing to worry about because the adults will figure things out.

Things are changing, but it’s OK.

Changes are part of life. And divorce means that our family is changing however scary this word may sound. Changes don’t mean things will get worse - they will just be different. Changes can be fun and exciting too even if they take some time to adapt to them.

Life will go on.

When we face new challenges in life, we often feel worried and confused. But after a while, we see that life is going on and we even like the way everything worked out. The same with divorce. For some time, everything will be a new and a little scary (responsibilities, daily routine, schedules). But then all the family together will build a new better life and maybe even like it more.

Love will always be there.

There is one certain and permanent thing in a child’s life - no matter what happens, mom and dad always love them. It will never change and nothing can destroy this love. Divorce, moving house, any other changes in life are powerless over parents’ love for the child. This is the most important message to give your child.

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