And with this famous break-up line, I begin a post on talking to your kids about divorce, the hardest break-up of all times.
Divorce is a really hard time for any family, as ready as they might be, as amicable as it might be. It’s a personal emotional roller-coaster where dreams and expectations come rolling down that hill and you just want to scream! In the middle of trying to figure out what you want, what are the next steps in your relationship, and perhaps coping with a different outcome than you imagined, it’s hard to think about what your kids are going through, as well. Specially if they are very young. We tend to think that small children are so innocent that they do not understand what is going on. And to an extent, that might be true. But, even if they do not fully understand, they can feel the tension, they can hear the arguments, they can see you cry. Even if they can not express or even understand what is happening, they can still feel it!
And for small children, when they do not have facts, they fantasize. So then, their little minds start to wonder and begin creating and believing stories that somehow they did something that made mommy and daddy angry and that it’s their fault that they are not together anymore. This is what you want to avoid.
You should always talk to your children about divorce. Both you and your partner. At the end of the day, they need to understand that what happened between the two of you, will not impact them. It’s not you, it’s me/us! They need to understand that it’s not their fault, that they will still be loved and cherished by both their parents, that they do not need to make choices!
The conversation you have with your child, really depends on their age and their development. But the core concepts are the one’s explained above.
Infants can not really understand the words, but they can pick up on the feelings. It is really important that an infant continues to be cared for in the same way as before and continues to see both parents. In infancy, children need to feel secure and cared for, so that is the environment that you want to continue to give them. If they are older infants, they can notice the absence of one of the parents and might cry for that parent, or become more irritable or fussy. During infancy, making them feel loved and safe by both parents, are the best “words” you can use.
Toddlers do begin to understand words that are used in divorce, but not the concept itself. They will notice the absent parent and might have a hard time understanding that difference. Therefore, it is really important to keep normal routines, normal parenting/discipline techniques, so children still feel like their lives have not changed that much. Also, allow your child for extra good-bye time and let them talk or see their other parent, as much as possible, when they ask for it. You might also notice some regressing behaviors, as a way of showing their sadness (wanting the bottle or pacifier again, not sleeping well, crying or more tantrums). So, keep it simple. Tell them that you and your partner are not living in the same house anymore, but that you still love him/her very much. Avoid telling kids that the reason you are not together, is because you don’t love each other anymore. That creates fear that someday, you might not love them too.
Pre-School and Early Elementary Children
These are the ages where you have to be more careful about feelings of guilt. Because children this age, can better understand the concept of future and permanency, they also might have more questions about how divorce will impact them. This is a time where you really want to talk to them about divorce and explain that it is not their fault. However, sometimes, we tend to provide children with too much information that they can not process. Again, keep it simple. Explain to them what we have talked about before and add reassurance that it has nothing to do with them, or anything that they did and that they should always feel that they can share with their parents any questions, concerns or feelings. When kids need more information, THEY ASK! This applies to any other topic.
Provide them with simple and enough information that is appropriate for their age and development, and believe me, if they need more, they will ask… as long as they feel they are in a supportive environment! Then keep your answers limited to their questions and if you don’t know something… be honest and tell them that you can find that out together!
Here are some books that you can use to help you talk to your child:
3-6 year olds
4-8 year olds
The best way to handle a difficult situation is to be informed and prepared. There are many great books and resources online that you can check out for more detailed information and tailored to your child’s age. Read as much as you can so you can feel ready for that difficult time/conversation. Also, a couple of months ago I saw yet another HBO documentary about how children view divorce and what they wanted their parents to do. If you have a chance, that is also a great way to keep your child’s needs in mind.
Remember, these are hard times and hard conversations. It can’t be perfect, but it can be ok. As long as you are able to keep your child in mind, their needs in mind, and their development in mind… you will find the best way to talk to them about what is going on. Allowing them to ask questions, express themselves through play or art, letting them feel loved and not in the middle of a battle or a choice, are the best things you can do for your child!