Divorce is hard. When you get married, you do not think about the marriage eventually ending. We enter marriage with the idea what it will last forever but the reality is that sometimes sticking together is not feasible. People grow apart, lives and goals change.
Divorce is difficult, but ending a marriage that has children can further complicate matters. Parents wonder how to break the news to the children and how the children will take the news. Many parents may feel that by ending their marriage, they have somehow failed their children.
What about the kids?
The good news is that children are both resilient and flexible. They can accommodate a new life and new future, but it is incumbent on parents to guide them through the process in an age appropriate manner. Below are some tips on accommodating your child’s need based on their emotional and cognitive development.
Very young children
If a child is very young, i.e. has not begun to talk, a sit-down discussion is not a possibility. Young children, however, who cannot yet talk can often understand language. Suggestions for explaining changes consist of simple sentences: “Daddy is moving but you will see him every day.” “Today is Thursday and you will spend the night with Daddy, then come see me tomorrow.” Giving the child the information and doing so in a straightforward way allows them to assimilate the new changes. Know that the child may ask more questions as they develop verbal competence.
For children who have verbal skills, honest statements that allay and address their fears are best. For example, preschool-aged children are cognitively focused on themselves. Their concerns are focused on their anxieties and expectations. Address issues like where the family dog will live, who will take them to preschool, when they will see friends and family. Assure them that the separation was not their fault by assuring them of your love. Some young children believe that a divorce means their parents are no longer their parents. Making clear that you are willing and able to answer their questions provides them with a sense of continuity and safety.
Elementary school age
Children first to third grades can communicate more effectively – whether about their feelings or their fears. Soliciting questions and offering a warm and open environment that gives them permission to verbalize their feelings/ask questions when the need arrives, provides the security they crave. Focus on assuring them that things will remain as consistent as possible: They will still see their parents, their friends, and participate in their outside activities.
Blaming one parent for the breakup is not uncommon for kids who are pre-adolescent. They are old enough to understand more of what a break up is, they may have witnessed arguments and disagreements, and their burgeoning sense of independent and abstract thinking ability allows them a broader perspective. Keep calm, address concerns and anger with equanimity, and do not take it personally. As with other age groups, give them a comforting, open space to ask questions. And to vent.
Hope for the future
Ending a marriage is difficult on the entire family. Adults have the cognitive and emotional maturity to sort out their myriad feelings. Kids, on the other hand, need willing ears and an environment that allows them to question whatever – and whenever -- they need to. They are adjusting, too, and if parents can address a child at his/her development stage, the probability for a peaceful and smooth transition is excellent.