Divorce is so very common in our society, and most parents, despite their wish to end their marriage, struggle with how to minimize the physical and emotional impact a divorce will have on the lives of their children.
How to tell the children their parents are getting divorced:
Before the children are told, the spouses should be absolutely certain that the decision is final. It is preferable that both parents tell the children as long as they can remain focused on the emotional needs of the children and not adversarial with each other. If this is not possible, the parent who has played the main parenting role should be the one to tell the children, lessening the trauma.
Make sure that the blame is not put on either parent. Tell the children only when you can spend the whole day together so they will not feel alone and will be able to ask questions. More than a day together would be an even better option. One woman that I respect spent an entire weekend with her children at a quiet lake house to help her children work through the news of parental divorce. There was quality time to work through some tears, anger, and pleading, carefully addressing the different needs of each child in the family.
How divorce affects the children:
Divorce is extremely traumatic and equally painful for the children. Studies show that divorce is equivalent to the pain of the death of a parent. Many children believe it is their fault. Many children of divorce have more difficulty in school, more behavior problems, and low self-esteem. Age is an important factor in determining how children will react. Holidays and birthdays are especially difficult during and after the divorce.
How to help children cope with divorce:
Try to get the child to open up. Appropriately share your emotions based on the age and maturity level of the child. Work together with the other parent as much as possible, keeping marital conflict separate from parental responsibilities. Spend quality time together with the children. Counseling might be necessary and beneficial.
Longitudinal studies show that whatever the symptoms, they usually subside by the end of the second year after separation/divorce. Children do not get over divorce as easily or quickly as we once thought. Studies show that emotional scars can remain 10 years later. Not long ago, a couple experiencing marital problems would stay together for the sake of the children, but today children are seen as secondary to the personal needs of the parents. Some children of divorce may go on to witness three or more family breakups.
What to expect from children at different stages of development:
Infants — Infants notice changes in parents’ energy levels and emotional states. Older infants notice when one parent is not longer living in the home. Infants tend to exhibit more irritability, crying, and fussing. They often show changes in sleep and other routines. When a new adult moves into the home they may feel some tension and nervousness.
What parents can do for infants is:
- keep normal schedules and routines
- reassure their love for the infant
- gradually introduce new adult friends
- keep favorites around (toys, blankets, books, etc.)
Toddlers — Toddlers recognize that one parent no longer lives at home. They may express symapthy toward others. The toddler may have a difficult time separating from parents. They may express anger. It is likely that they may regress in behavior and skill development. Their sleep patterns may change and nightmares are common.
What parents can do for toddlers is:
- spend more time with them when preparing to separate/divorce
- provide verbal reassurances of love and care
- understand the toddler’s distress
- talk with them about their distress in ways that make sense to them
Preschool / Early Elementary — Preschool age children and early elementary school children clearly recognize that one parent no longer lives at home and begin to understand the concept of divorce. At this age they tend to blame themselves for the divorce. They worry about changes in their daily lives. There is a tendency to have more nightmares, be more aggressive and angry, and have fantasies about the parents getting back together.
What parents can do for preschool and early elementary school children is:
- tell the children that they are not responsible for the divorce
- talk with the children about their thoughts and feelings
- plan schedules to meet with the other parent
- read books together about divorce
- tell them gently that there is no chance of mom and dad getting back together
Preteens and Adolescents — Preteens and adolescents understand what divorce means but generally have difficulty with the reality divorce brings to their life. They may still blame themselves for the divorce. Children at this age typically feel abandoned by the parent that has moved out. They may withdraw from familiar activities and friends. They may experience growing up too soon and feel obligated to take on adult responsibilities.
What parents can do for preteens and adolescents is:
- maintain open lines of communication
- work toward making sure that both parents remain involved in the lives of the children
- honor family rituals
- attend their special occasions
Are there other suggestions you have found that help children of various ages deal with the separation and/or divorce of their parents?