Written by Dr. D.J. Gaughan

How to talk to your young kids about divorce

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Divorce with kids is possibly the most challenging type of marriage ending. No matter what brought you to this point, you both share a love for your children and a desire that they have a good future, as well as a carefree life, moving forward. You need to know and believe three things:

  1. Change impacts children differently because each child is unique. How you handle your divorce with children is child-specific.
  2. How you handle your divorce with children is also age-specific, even if you have 2 or more children. Toddlers and pre-schoolers are usually at different developmental levels than older children, so you should follow a different set of guidelines.
  3. Your divorce is not going to ruin your kids’ lives. Life is full of challenges, and to assume you can prevent any disappointment in your child’s life is unrealistic and perhaps unwise.

How to Talk to Young Kids About Divorce

You can plan to talk to young kids about divorce together or separately, but the key is planning. Don’t go into this discussion unprepared. This sensitive conversation should take place 2-3 weeks before separation.

Research over the last five years has revealed that over 75% of divorcing parents talk to their children about this change in the family for less than ten minutes – total. Children need to talk about this, and they need to hear about it. Even if they say, they don’t want to do either. Lisa Herrick, Ph.D.

Younger children need the same respect and consideration all of us need, at every age. Here are some tips to help you during this time of change with children up to the age of 5.

Pre-schoolers…

  • Can think about feelings but are unable to discuss feelings effectively
  • Are entirely dependent on parents/caregivers
  • Believe fantasy and reality are intertwined
  • Believe the world revolves around them
  • Have an inability to understand complexities, including cause and effect

If Mom leaves home, a toddler will think, “Mom left ME.” Constant, ongoing reinforcement that Mom lives somewhere else but that love, care, and time together is not leaving.

Talking Points for Divorce with Children

Anxious Toddlers.com says, “Toddlers are the most ignored victims of divorce,” maybe because we discount their level of understanding. When you talk to young kids about divorce, unified is better, but if one spouse is emotionally fragile, it may be best for the other spouse to manage the conversation alone.

Choose a day and time that is free from activities and commitments elsewhere. A Saturday morning gives you two full days to be entirely available for your young kids about the divorce, for continuing discussion and reassurance. Tell their teacher/caregivers the day before you tell the kids about the divorce. Request they be sensitive, discreet, and more available than usual should the children need additional support.

Babies can feel your stress but can be reassured through ritual and consistent caregiving during a divorce. “Consistent feeding…interactive communication through play engages your child with love and affection they convert to assurance and confidence.” –Psychology Today

Three-year-olds, for example, are control freaks. Everything that happens in their world happens because of them, and that includes your divorce. With toddlers, have a plan in place that addresses their questions and concerns:

Is this forever and ever?

YES, this is forever and ever. Don’t instill a sense of false hope that maybe everything can return to what it was before the divorce.

Who is living where?

Keep it simple: “I’m living in this house and Daddy is living at the other house. You’ll have toys and clothes and a bed at both houses.” But avoid sugarcoating the divorce (no matter how tempting that may be). They do need to see the reality of the situation. Then, every day – every day – begin the day by discussing where your children will be staying and with whom. A calendar is a great visual for pre-schoolers.

Will Mommy divorce me too?

Give constant reassurance that you will never leave your child because of the divorce, but reiterate sometimes mommies and daddies decide not to live together.

What’s for lunch?

Be prepared for several reactions to common questions (crying, tantrums, silence, anger, fear), including denial. Denial is a typical response for a child who doesn’t want anything – even a tense home life – to change. He or she may refuse to talk about it, and that’s okay. Simply keep the doors of communication wide open, 24/7, and continue to offer consistency of care and love.

What’s Best for the Kids

Staying together in an unhappy marriage “for the kids” seldom works well. Children thrive and grow much better when their parents work together and not necessarily when they stay together in an unfulfilled relationship. A collaborative divorce in Arizona works for many families and can be the best thing for you and the kids. When it’s time to talk about a divorce, call 800.338.4765 or contact a divorce professional at Best Legal Choices.

Are you considering divorce or legal separation? Compare having a judge decide your fate against collaborative law.  Some Arizona statutes give a little more information about what courts have to consider.   Here is the “best interest factors” statute that will define custody decisions in a conventional court case. This may help explain why collaborative divorce.

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