There are four pillars of security in a child's life as in all of our lives—people, place, routine, and ritual. Separation and divorce touches all four, usually for both the adults and children involved.
Acknowledging this, and knowing and understanding our children are the first steps toward accepting the feelings that arise and figuring out the best ways to help our children feel secure when times are tough.
How Children React to Divorce Varies by Child
Obviously, children are different, from adults and from each other. Each child, at each stage of development, views the world through their own unique lenses. From birth, each child has her own sensitivity to change, to unexpected events, and to distress.
Some things to remember:
- Children under the age of 3 will usually know something is up. They absorb the tension, fear, withdrawal, or hurt of the people they love and the changes around them. Even very young babies react when parents are upset or depressed. Infants and toddlers can only show their distress with the language of behavior: being irritable or contrary, clinging to you, and crying. They often show distress through their daily routines: eating, sleeping, and toileting. Some young children may become listless and apathetic.
- More than anything, preschoolers fear abandonment, and they often think they are the cause of an event. They also speak through the language of their behavior, play, and art.
- Older children often feel responsible and act out or withdraw, or react with other behavioral changes. They have enough life experience and the intellectual skills to worry about what this means to the architecture of their future.
How to Tell Your Child about Separation or Divorce
Having a discussion about Mommy and Daddy not living together anymore is, without question, one of the most difficult conversations, or series of conversations, you will ever have. There are no magic words to make this easier for anyone involved, but the following guidelines may help you focus on what's most important—your child:
- Agree with the other parent about what you will say to your child and, if possible, sit down together with him or her to share the news.
- Don't blame each other. No child benefits from the denigration of a parent. Use neutral language to explain the reasons for the break up. "Mommy and Daddy don't get along anymore. We are not interested in the same things. We have tried to fix the problems between us, but it didn't work and the best solution is for us to live apart."
- Clearly explain what will happen when you separate—what will change and what will stay the same at the level that the child can understand. Be prepared to answer questions about where both parents will live, who will take care of the child, and who will take her to child care, school, birthday parties, and other activities.
- Reassure your child that she will be taken care of no matter what, and that both parents love her very much.
- Ask your child what she understands. Give her the chance to talk and ask questions.
- Allow your child time to adjust to the news. Expect outbursts of temper and/or tears, periods of silence, and even a "so what" attitude while she processes this new information. Make sure your initial discussion has plenty of time built in for hugs, kisses, conversation, and reassurances.
- Let your child know that it's okay to feel sad, angry, scared, hurt, or anything else she may be feeling and that she can always talk to you and/or the other parent about her feelings; or to other special adults like grandparents.
- Do not give your child false hope that you might get back together again just to make her feel better in the moment.
Tips for Transitioning from Married to Separated or Divorced
As you reconstruct your own pillars of security, remember to keep your child's in mind as well.
- Try to maintain your child's routine and, when change can't be avoided, introduce adjustments as gradually as possible (including a stable two-household arrangement). Try to keep the same child care provider, schools, activities, and/or friends. Children of all ages are comforted by continuity.
- As soon as possible, establish the regular visitation schedule with the other parent and if appropriate, prepare for the two-household arrangement when it makes sense for the child. Create a calendar so your child can see when he will spend time with each parent.
- Let your child's teachers and caregivers know about the separation or divorce and any resulting changes to your family structure so they can provide support, share any insights into the child's experience, and let you know if they notice any significant changes in your child's behavior. Remember, children's behavior changes all the time and not all behavior of concern stems from traumatic change.
- Try to be very available to your child. While it's important to maintain your routine, it's more important to provide your child with the extra reassurance he needs during the transition. A certain amount of neediness and regression is completely normal and developmentally inconsequential.
- At the same time, don't use your child to satisfy your own emotional neediness to make up for your loss. Children may feel they need to take care of their parents, which is normal, but it is our responsibility to keep that caring instinct within healthy limits.
- Don't let your guilty feelings affect your discipline habits. Your child needs consistency, perhaps now more than ever. Let him know that his feelings of sadness and anger are okay, but he wasn't allowed to hit his little sister (or you) before the divorce and that rule still applies.
Reassure Your Child Often During Divorce or Separation
- Remind your child over and over again that she did not cause the divorce and that both parents still love her very much.
- Let her know that even though you and the other parent won't be married anymore, your child still has two parents and a family. You just don't all live in the same place anymore.
- Explain that, although the parents' feelings toward each other have changed, your love for your child will go on forever.
- Let her know that her parents will continue to take care of her and will always be there for her.
- Let your child know that all his feelings - sadness, guilt, shame, anger, fear, confusion, loneliness, relief, etc. - are normal and that you understand them.
- Read and talk to your child often. Use children's books like It's Not Your Fault, KoKo Bear (by Vicky Lansky) and Dinosaur's Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families (by Laura Krasny Brown and Marc Brown) as a springboard for discussion about divorce.
How to Communicate with Ex-Spouse
- Save divorce-related conflicts for the lawyer's or mediator's office or courtroom. Do not have arguments in front of your child or on the phone when she is within earshot.
- If you need to communicate something to the other parent, do it yourself—by letter, fax, or email if conversation on the phone is too difficult.
- Never use your child as a messenger or mail carrier.
- Never pump your child for information about the other parent's household. When children are in two-household situations, they may cope by compartmentalizing and not talking to you about their life with the other parent.
- Never use drop-off and pick-up times for your child's visitation with the other parent as an opportunity to discuss issues of child support, scheduling, or other potentially contentious issues. Simply say hello and goodbye; share pertinent, neutral information; and focus on helping your child making the transition from parent to parent.
- Never say negative things about the other parent to your child or to someone else in front of your child. Call a friend after your child goes to bed, write in a journal, scribble your thoughts on a piece of paper and flush it down the toilet, talk to a counselor, or just bite your tongue. Your child feels criticism of the other parent as if it is criticism of the child. Destructive remarks about the other parent cause your child to feel anxiety about how you feel about her.
- Never ask your child, either directly or indirectly, which parent she loves more, wants to spend more time with, and so on. The child loses in any competition between parents.
- Try to accent the positive aspects of your past marriage to the other parent. Don't omit all references to Mommy or Daddy because he or she no longer lives with you. This encourages your child not to take sides. And, if this is too difficult, practice the golden rule: If you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all.
Moving On after a Divorce or Separation
- Keep your child informed about any major upcoming changes. Anxiety grows when children are left in the dark.
- Be prepared to keep talking about the divorce with your child. Just because you discussed the issue with him when you first shared the news, doesn't mean your child is finished having feelings about the divorce.
- Make sure your child feels like he has a place in each parent's home. Whether he spends an hour a week or seven nights a week at a parent's place, it's important that he feels like he belongs.
- Try to develop a mutually respectful relationship with the other parent. If the other parent doesn't always treat you with respect, keep in mind that you are doing this for your child, and be respectful anyway.
- Acknowledge that your child might want you and the other parent to get back together, but do not encourage or support this wish.
- Let go of your expectations of being the perfect parent. Not only is it impossible, trying will just add to your frustration and guilt.
Divorce can be a difficult and painful ending - to a marriage, to a dream, and to parenting your child as part of a single family unit. It can also be an opportunity for growth—for parents and kids—and the beginning of a happy and healthy new family. Regardless of where you are now, it's important to remember: Even if you and the other parent aren't living happily ever after as husband and wife, you are parents forever, and through your child, you are likely connected forever.
Books to Help Your Family through a Divorce:
- "Parenting After Divorce: Resolving Conflicts and Meeting Your Child's Needs" by Philip Stahl
- "The Co-Parenting Survival Guide" by Elizabeth Thayer
- "Mom's House, Dad's House: Making Two Homes for Your Child" by Isolina Ricci
- "It's Not Your Fault, Koko Bear" (Ages 3-7) by Vicky Lansky and Jane Prince
- "Mama and Daddy Bear's Divorce" (Preschool - Grade 1) by Cornelia Maude Spelman
- "Two Homes" (Preschool - Grade 1) by Claire Masurel
- "I Don't Want to Talk about It" (Kindergarten - Grade 3) by Jeanie Franz Ransom