What will we tell them? How will they react? These are normal questions a parent might ask themselves when considering a divorce. Helping your children navigate the divorce process is a lot of work but with the tips below and some work on your part you will make it through.
You just sat down with the kids and told them that you and their other parent are getting divorced. Maybe they asked a lot of questions, some of which had nothing to do with the divorce. (“Where will I go to school?” “If we move, will Brianna still be able to come to my birthday party?”) Maybe they cried or didn’t say anything.
If you’ve never been divorced before, you may be relying heavily on the theory that children are resilient and quickly bounce back after divorce. You may have heard that when a parent is happier, the kids will be too.
Like other life-changing events, a child’s feelings about divorce are intense. Yes, kids are resilient but they’re going to want and need your support more than ever.
Remember What It Was Like For You
Did your parents divorce when you were a child? If so, think about how you felt when Mom or Dad (or both) sat you down to break the news. Maybe you thought this big discussion at the kitchen table was about an upcoming trip to Disneyland, only to have your world turn upside down by the time it was over. What did you want and need afterward?
The answers to those questions may depend on how old you were at the time, and your kids will need different types of reassurance and support based on age.
Even babies feel tension in the home and between their parents. If you have an infant, has she been clinging to you and crying a lot? This is because she knows something is changing and can’t articulate her feelings. The best way to soothe and support your baby is to maintain a normal routine and spend extra time offering physical comfort.
Your toddler’s main bond is with you and his other parent, so anything that disrupts his home life, such as divorce, is going to upset him. At this age, he’s more likely to think that he caused you and your spouse to break up. Keep reassuring him that this is not the case, spend quality time with him, and encourage him to talk about his feelings (if he’s old enough to talk).
Like toddlers, preschoolers often blame themselves for their parents separating. Even if the home environment wasn’t the best, your preschooler is going to want you and your spouse to stay together. When you don’t, she’s going to feel anxiety and anger that she may not tell you about, although you will notice her outbursts or withdrawals.
Although she may not say so, your preschooler needs three important things:
- Someone to talk to
- A way of expressing their feelings
- Reassurance that they are safe, secure, and will continue to see their non custodial parent
Children this age respond well both to sessions with child therapists and age-appropriate books about divorce.
If any of your children are in the five-to-eight age group, they will probably ask you if they will ever see their other parent again (if they’ll be living with you). They’re going to be more aware of what divorce means and afraid of loss than their younger siblings.
Older kids may also lash out at you and accuse you of being mean for changing their lives in this way. Don’t be surprised if they fantasize about you and your spouse getting back together or try to “rescue” the marriage. This is their way of trying to regain some control and equilibrium. You can help them by rebuilding their sense of self-esteem and security. Reassure them that the divorce is not their fault and neither parent will abandon them.
Your school-age children may find it beneficial to talk to a professional about their feelings. Since friends, school, and extracurricular activities are important to this age group, encourage them to get involved in events that they love and will bolster their self-esteem.
Your teenager is at the age where she appears to be more engaged with her peers than her parents. While this is all part of forming her own unique identity, it doesn’t mean that your divorce won’t affect her. Unlike her younger siblings, however, your teenager is more likely to pull away than cling to you. She understands the finality of divorce and may become angry over what she perceives as a betrayal.
Offer your teenager the opportunity to talk to a therapist while emphasizing that you and the other parent will always be there when she needs to talk. If appropriate, allow her to have input in how she will divide her time between her parents, and make every reasonable effort to create a custody arrangement that lets her stay in contact with her friends and engaged in her extracurricular activities.
College Age Children
Although all of the conversations we’ve covered in this blog will be difficult, breaking the news to your college children might seem the easiest. By now, they have matured and can likely handle the bad news without lashing out or overreacting like a younger child would. Even more, unless the divorce is a shock to everyone, it’s likely they had a sense things between you and your spouse weren’t going well. That doesn’t change the difficulty of adjusting to a new life on their own as well as changes to their home life. Make sure you provide a safe space for them to talk to you and their other parent. Don’t make the mistake of not addressing the changes with your college age kids because you view them as adults. They are and always will be your children and need support just like younger children..
At Bliss Law Group, we understand how divorce impacts families and will provide compassionate personal support as well as legal guidance. Remember: your kids will get past this difficult stage in their lives, just like you will. If you give them a voice and support them based on their feelings, you can all move forward together. For more resources or to schedule a consultation, call our office at 253-844-4412