Children and Divorce

Helping Children Understand Divorce


Divorce is an awful experience for children.  It is heartening to note, however that divorcing parents have a great deal of control over the way their children mange the divorce. Generally before parents decide to divorce, they have been through many events that have lead to the decision to end the marriage.  Children may or may not be aware of their parents' decision. 

In some families, parents may openly argue in front of the children.  This behavior leaves the children suspecting  that something is going on.  Other families keep their disagreements from the children.   Regardless of the family dynamics, when the parents decide to divorce, the children need to know.  

This article's purpose is two fold: first, to help you understand  a child's thoughts and feelings when their parents decide to divorce.  Second, to provide strategies to assist in talking to children about divorce.

Before divorcing parents can talk to their children, they need to understand what is happening developmentally.  Children grow through fairly predictable stages of development.  These stages affect children in their physical, mental and emotional growth.  Having an understanding of these stages of development prepares a parent to effectively communicate on a level their child can understand.


A child's understanding of divorce

AGE

What is understood

Thoughts and Feelings

What parents can do

Infants

(0-1)

  • A change in parents energy levels and emotional state
  • Older infants notice when one parent is no longer living in the home
  • An infant's sense of self is a reflection of the thoughts, feelings and actions around him or her
  • Infants first milestone is to learn about trust
  • Irritability/ fussy
  • If parent is depressed, non-responsive or anxious, the infant will become anxious and may stop trying to engage the parent in an emotional connection
  • Changes in daily routine
  • If new adult moves into home, older infants may be nervous and fearful
  • Maintain normal routines
  • Anticipate eating and sleeping problems
  • Pamper and comfort your baby
  • Keep favorite transition objects    ( blankets, toys) close by
  • Gradually introduce older infants to new adult friends
  • Frequent and regular contact with both spouses
  • Keep a positive and calm attitude when around the baby

Toddlers

(2-3)

  • Recognizes that one parent no longer lives at home.
  • May express empathy towards others.
  • Gains a sense of self via adult responses to him or her.  
  • Toddlers milestone is gaining independence
  • Toddlers measure themselves by the input ( attitudes, words and actions) of others
  • May have difficulty separating from parents
  • Able to express anger toward parent
  • May become worried and anxious when the parent is away.
  • Misplaced guilt: they will likely blame themselves for the divorce
  • May behaviorally regress ( lose skills previously developed i.e. toilet training or show behaviors they grew out of i.e. thumb sucking)
  • Sleeping and napping disturbances         (change in routine, older toddlers may have nightmares)
  • Spend more time with children during transitions ( i.e. arrive 10-15 minutes earlier when you take your child to child care)
  • Be consistent in response
  • Provide physical and verbal reassurance of your love
  • Understand your child's distress and know that given time and support old behaviors will disappear and recently learned skills will reappear
  • Talk to other adults and care givers about how to support your child during this transition.

Preschool and early elementary

(4-8)

  • Recognize that one parent no longer lives at home
  • Elementary School children begin to understand divorce means their parents will no longer be married and live together and that their parents no longer love each other.
  • Beginning to demonstrate mastery and accomplishment among peers
  • Beginning to judge self compared to others
  • Base self image on how they and others perceive their parents
  • Have a need to fit in
  • Misplaced guilt: they will likely blame themselves for the divorce
  • May worry about the changes in their daily lives
  • Have more nightmares
  • May demonstrate  signs of hidden sadness and grief
  • May become aggressive and angry toward the parent they blame
  • Preschoolers struggle with the difference between fantasy and reality.  Children may have the fantasy their parents will get back together.
  • Preschoolers interpret one parent leaving home as a rejection of themselves
  • Fears become extended in their entire world
  • Repeatedly tell the children they are not responsible for the divorce
  • Reassure the children their needs will be met and who will take care of them
  • Talk to them about their thoughts and feelings.  Be sensitive to their fears
  • Plan a visitation schedule.  Support the children's ongoing relationship with the other parent
  • Read books together about children and divorce
  • Gentle and matter of factly remind children that the divorce is  final and that parents will not get back together again.

Preteens and adolescents

(9+)

  • Understands what divorce means but may have difficulty accepting the reality of the changes it brings to their family
  • Sill may blame themselves for the divorce
  • Beginning to develop a moral code based on experiences with parents.  Will identify who is good or bad.
  • Will begin a period of rebellion, by acting out difficult emotions
  • Older teens (13-17) struggle with autonomy vs. acceptance
  • May feel abandoned by the parent who moves out of the house
  • May see the divorce as a personal rejection
  • May act as if nothing bothers them
  • May withdraw from long- time friends and favorite activities
  • May act out in uncharacteristic ways
  • May feel angry and unsure about their own beliefs concerning love, marriage and family
  • May start to worry about adult matters
  • May experience a sense of growing up too soon
  • May feel obligated to take on more adult responsibilities in the family
  • divorce  is one of the most difficult life events, however, older teens have more emotional resources to cope with the transition.
  • Keep lines of communication open
  • Reassure children of your love and continued involvement in their lives
  • Talk to the other adults in their life and ask about the child's response
  • Both parents need to stay involved in their children's lives, know their friends, what they do together, and keep up with their progress in other activities
  • Validate the child's strengths
  • Honor family rituals and routines
  • Assign age-appropriate household responsibilities and show appreciation for children's contribution
  • Avoid using teens as confidants, plan time for yourself with adult friends
  • Tell children who will be attending special occasions, especially if you plan to take a new romantic partner.

chart adapted from  MU Extension, university of Missouri Columbia

Talking with children about divorce

Children's reactions are related to how the parents decide to tell the child about the divorce.  Parents need to consider carefully how they will tell the children and what they will tell them.  If at all possible the family should meet together.  This process allows the children to ask questions of their parents.  It can also help the parents to avoid blaming each other.  Prior to this family meeting the parents should discuss specifically what to tell the children.  With prior planning, parents can stay calmer which in turn helps the children remain calm.  This family meeting should be repeated in time to address other questions and concerns the children may have. A family meeting may seem like an impossibility to a couple facing divorce.  It is a time where the contentions of the adult relationship needs to take a back seat to the needs of the children directly affected by the divorce.

What do the children need to know?  Children can often become confused with too much information.  They need to know their needs will be met, their routine will stay as intact as possible.  They need to know they are not to blame for their parents divorce.  Children need to know their relationship with both parents will continue and be supported. Children also need to know the truth.  Although some information may be too overwhelming for a child to hear (i.e. extra marital affairs, abuse or addiction), information can be given to a child about the divorce at an age appropriate level.  As time goes by, the child may need more information to clarify their understanding of the divorce.  Above all, the parent does not want to get into a situation where they must retract a statement  as a lie.  This erodes the safety and security of the family. In that their world has been completely altered it is helpful to tell the children what will remain the same.  It is important at this time that a parents words and actions match.  Follow through on the plans set forth to the children is important.

Older children (4+) need to know the divorce is final. There is a temptation to tell children whatever may make them feel safe.  Statements such as "nothing will change" or "You will see dad as much as before"  are empty reassurances.  The children know this will not happen. The parents want to avoid giving the children false hopes the parents will reunite.  This would be the appropriate time to restate the divorce is not their fault.  Children, in an attempt to make sense of  the trauma of divorce, will interpret their behavior (misbehavior, bad grades in school) as the reasons for the divorce. They tend to feel guilty which leads to feeling a lack of self worth. Children will have fears and concerns regarding the changes ahead.  Take these concerns seriously.  Parents need to listen to what their children have to say.  It is important for all of us to feel validated and recognized.  Parents can demonstrate care and concern by listening closely to what children have to say.  It is important to validate their feelings and thoughts.  This behavior will demonstrate a parent's ongoing commitment to their children.

Making it easier for the children

There are some basic things parents can to do make the transition of divorce easier for all children.

  1. Listen.  Parents need to make themselves available to listen to he concerns and questions of their children.  Children need to talk about their own conflicts and confusion.
  2. Be as honest as possible.  To the extent that it is possible, have discussions about the divorce with both parents present.
  3. Do not try to over compensate for an absent parent.  
  4. Parents should not use the children to ferret information back and forth between households. The children are not messengers.   It is inappropriate to ask the children to be a spy.  If the children do not want to talk about the time spent with the other parent, leave it as that.  
  5. Reassure the children often that they are not to blame.
  6. Spouses should not argue while the children are listening.   Conflict witnessed by children during and after the divorce adversely affects their adjustment.
  7. Maintain normal routines and activities to the greatest extent possible.
  8. Try to be consistent with rules and discipline in each house.
  9. Do not use the children as a pawn.  The children deserve to have quality time with both parents.  Don't make the children decide between their parents.
  10. Take care of yourself.  You will need to nurture yourself so that you can in turn nurture your children.
  11. Make every effort to maintain consistent contact with the children - even if there are geographic boundaries.
  12. Don't make promises you cannot keep .  Too often divorcing parents make promises they cannot keep.  These promises are born out of their own guilt. Children do not forget the promises their parents make.  Following through on a promises reinforces a sense of safety and security.
  13. Don't criticize your spouse or their family in front of the children.
  14. Your child is not your confidant.  Let your child be a child.  Deal with your personal feelings by networking with friends or through outside help.

Resources

Dinosaurs Divorce: A guide for changing families  Laurence Krasney Brown and Marc Brown (1986) Little and Brown Company.  This book is designed for young school-aged children and their parents to read together. The stories of the Dinosaur family coping with the issues of divorce are presented in a cartoon strip.  Common issues, problems, and solutions are discussed.

Helping your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way  M. Gary Neuman LMHC 1998 GKN Corp

Divorce Poison Richard A Warshak 2001 Harper Collins