Many couples stay together much longer than is healthy for them because they dread telling the children they are getting a divorce. That hesitation is understandable. Even when divorce is the right decision for a family, it is never easy to tell children their family dynamic is headed for a drastic change.
It is important to note a child’s experience of divorce has a lot to do with their age and development. A toddler is naturally going to have different questions and fears than a teenager.
This discussion provides some general guidance for talking to all children about divorce followed by tips specific to different age groups.
Tips to Talk to Children about Divorce
Practice the talk. If there is anything a divorcing couple can and should absolutely agree on, it is what is best for the children. The way parents first present the topic of divorce is going to impact how it is received, so it is a good idea for parents to plan what they are going to say.
Choose a day and time when everyone is together, preferably when there is plenty of time to talk about everyone’s feeling and answer questions. Avoid having the talk right before school or bedtime, and on festive occasions such as a birthday or holiday.
Talk to the children together. For the first discussion about divorce, it is important for the family to be together. Children should hear the news at the same time, directly from both parents. Because children of different ages will process the news differently and have their own questions, schedule time to have a follow-up conversation with each child later.
In a high-conflict divorce, or when safety is a concern, parents may not be able to be together. If separate conversations are necessary, consider working with a counselor or mediator for guidance.
Avoid the blame game. Children do not choose their parents, and they certainly should not bear the burden when the marriage fails. Adult disputes should remain between the adults, and children should feel free to maintain their own relationships with each parent, without guilt.
When telling the children about the divorce, never say that it is the other parent’s fault. Children should not be in the middle or feel bad for loyalty to either parent. Instead, focus on mutual feelings. For example, parents might say that they tried to make the marriage work, but they just are not happy anymore.
Tell the children what to expect going forward. Divorce can be so hard for children in part because it creates a sense of uncertainty about the future. In a moment, everything they know is suddenly changed. They may have heard horror stories about divorce from their friends and classmates.
To ease their anxiety, carefully explain all the changes that are going to happen. Tell them what is going to change and what will stay the same. If final child custody and visitation details have not been worked out, be honest about that.
Keep them informed as things evolve and never spring a move or other big change on them suddenly. The goal is to keep as much consistency as possible, with school, friends, sports, and other things that are familiar to them.
Model good coping skills. The path to divorce is rarely a smooth one. But as parents, it is so important to take the higher road and be an example for the children. That may be hard for a parent dealing with a nasty ex-spouse, but save the insults and the curse words for someone with whom it is okay to vent, such as a friend or counselor. Children who see their parents lose control are more likely to feel out of control themselves.
When things get tough, teach children healthy ways to manage their anxiety and stress such as taking the dog for a walk, reading a good book, or making a favorite meal together.
Reassure the children that everything will be okay. Regardless of the age of the children, one message is important above all others. The children need to be told that the parents will be there for them. Children of all ages need to know they are supported and will be taken care of regardless of how the divorce plays out. The words may be different from age to age, but every child needs to feel that reassurance and security is unwavering.
How to Talk to Children Up to Age Five
Babies are fully dependent on caregivers with no understanding of complex events such as marriage or divorce. Toddlers and preschoolers begin to understand cause and effect and think about the future. They have feelings but are not equipped to explain them.
For children in this age group, stick to simple, concrete explanations of what is happening. Tell them which parent is staying, which parent is moving out, and when they will see both. Focus on consistent routines for meals, bedtime, bathing, and other activities. Be ready to answer questions as they arise, and always offer lots of reassurance.
What to look for. Children in distress at these young ages may be fearful, anxious, clingy, or even grumpy. They may regress in hitting their milestones such as sleeping through the night or potty training. Counseling can be helpful for any child dealing with divorce.
How to Talk to Children Ages Six to 12
Children around the ages of six to eight start to think more about their feelings and those of others as they form bonds with people outside of the home. As they reach nine, 10, and 12, children tend to see things as black and white issues and may pick one parent to blame for the divorce.
Some children in this age group may have a fantasy they can bring their parents back together somehow. It is important to gently remind them the divorce was an adult decision. They did not cause it, and it is not their job to fix it. Children in this age group continue to benefit from structure and routine.
What to look for. Among children in this age group, signs of distress may include sadness, anxiousness, and anger. They may show obvious signs of missing the parent who has moved out and ponder how to bring about a reunion.
How to Talk to Children Ages 13 to 17
Tweens and teens have a greater ability to understand the nuances of divorce, and how they impact the larger family. They can retreat into their own world and their own feelings, making it difficult to gauge how they are really coping.
Even if it seems like a teenager is pulling away, that is never a cue for the parent to hold back. In fact, the child may be testing the parent to see how unconditional their love really is. Keep checking in with older children and be available and receptive when they are willing and ready to talk.
What to look for. Anger and moodiness are common teen emotions, so it can be hard to tell what is related to the divorce. Think about the child’s demeanor before the divorce to identify recent changes. Because teens are good at masking their pain, be proactive about getting help if they mention feelings or show signs of depression or self-harm.
Telling a child about divorce is likely to be one of the most difficult discussions a parent will have. But it is an important one. And the way parents approach this talk will have a real impact on how children process the change and feel about their parents going forward. Always follow the child’s lead, be open and honest, and offer love and support every step of the way. Children can and do thrive after divorce.
Morristown Divorce Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Understand the Emotional, Financial, and Legal Impact of Divorce
The Morristown divorce lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. understand the emotional, financial, and legal impact of divorce on a family. We are especially mindful of a child’s experience of divorce and use every legal tool available to protect their rights above all. To learn more about our approach to custody and visitation matters, or to schedule a free consultation, call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.