How to talk to your younger children about Divorce (Part 2 of 3)
In part 2 of this 3-part series, we discuss how to talk to young children about Divorce, and signs of distress you should watch out for
Divorce can be extremely destabilizing for the entire family: parents, children, and even extended family and friends. While parents are faced with the difficulty of making the decision and working through it, children are at the receiving end of a decision they didn’t have any part in making. Your decisions and how you manage them will substantially change your child’s life. So communicating with children about the divorce is of paramount importance.
Even though they may be very young, it is still important that you discuss your divorce with them. It is also important that you notice any signs of distress they may be feeling. Check out Part 1 of our 3-part series on discussing divorce with your children for some general guidelines.
In part 2 of this 3-part series, we’ll discuss how to talk to your younger children about divorce. We’ll also give you some tips so you can spot signs of distress in your children’s behavior. This article is recommended for parents with children aged 10 and under.
Ages 0 to 2: babies and toddlers
At this stage children are entirely dependent on parents or caregivers. They have no ability to understand complex events, anticipate future situations, or understand their feelings. They require consistency and routine (meals, play, bath, bed) and are comforted by familiarity. They may be distressed by disruptions of consistency, routines, and familiarity.
Signs of distress include increased fussiness or crying, and changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Toddlers are especially sensitive to separations and may develop separation anxiety, which can result in withdrawn, distressed, or clingy behavior.
What you can do to help
- Expect the behaviors and be prepared
- Be vigilant and observant for somatic signals
- Set things up so that consistency and routine are maintained even if and when the child is in a different home
- Use transitional objects to maintain familiarity (like a security blanket, a toy or stuffed animal, a sippy cup, etc.)
- Spend as much time as possible with the child
Ages 3 to 5: preschoolers
At this age, children are beginning to develop independence, but they still need considerable caregiving and consistent schedules. Their cognitive and linguistic skills are growing, and they’re becoming more self-reliant, but their ability to understand cause and effect is still limited, and they are still unable to think about the future. Their understanding of the world revolves around themselves. They may be able to think about their feelings, but their ability to talk about feelings is limited. And, they may not always clearly see the difference between reality and fantasy.
Signs of distress include general irritability, frequent crying, power struggles (including tantrums), worries about separation, clinginess, and regression to earlier behaviors such as bedwetting, thumb sucking, problems sleeping through the night, etc. Some children may even show signs of anger at either parent, or misinterpretations of the separation, as “mom/dad left me.”
What you can do to help
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings and help them to express them: for example through symbolic play and story telling
- Maintain routine and structure
- Give simple, concrete information about the basics: which parent is moving out, where the child will live, who will take care of them, and when they’ll see the other parent.
- Consider having many short talks, as opposed to one long talk. That will meet your children’s developing cognitive ability, and it will give them (and you) time to process between talks.
Ages 6 to 10: elementary school
Ages 6 to 8
At this stage children have a slightly broader view of the environment around them, and they are developing more relationships outside the home (school, sports, friends), but their understanding of complex dynamics is still limited. They have a little more ability to think and talk about feelings, but they may not want to or be ready to.
They still need individual time with each parent and continued reassurance that they are loved. They start focusing on fairness and may want to spend equal amount of time with each parent. They need to make sense of circumstances that they can’t fully understand. So they may become interested in issues such as who’s to blame or if there are chances to reunite the family.
Signs of distress include sadness, anger, or aggression. Stress may take the form of physical problems (such as upset stomachs, headaches, even rashes) or social problems (such as problems with friends or at school).
Ages 9 to 10
These children have a more developed ability to understand, think, and talk about feelings and circumstances related to divorce. However, they still tend to see things in black and white. They become more involved with activities outside the family and they develop their relationships apart from their parents (friends, teachers, coaches).
Signs of distress include sadness, anger, loneliness and depression. Here too the stress can take the form of both physical problems (such as headaches and stomach aches), and social and learning problems. Some children may have fantasies of family reunification.
What you can do to help
- Recognize your child’s need to grieve and give them time
- Continue to provide care, routine and security
- Ensure equal time with each parent
- To help them process and talk about their feelings, consider using an indirect and normalizing approach: “some kids would feel angry or sad… and that would be OK/normal”
- To help them come to terms with the complex circumstances, tell them clearly that the divorce was an adult decision that they cannot influence, caused by adult problems that they didn’t create and they can’t fix. This will help their healing process, even past possible fantasies of family reunification.
Be mindful. Remember that your children are the innocent victims of your divorce. They should be the focus of your attention. It is very challenging to guide children through turbulent times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family, friends, teachers or other professionals. Parenting classes or counseling may be beneficial to you and your children. Be diligent about protecting them from arguments between their parents or belittling comments. Always do your best to maintain an open, loving, and supportive environment for your children during and after your divorce.
Discussing Divorce with your Children Article Pt 2 Written by Anna Zanella
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