ROBERT M. NEWELL, PH.D.
FORENSIC AND CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY
Specializing in Behavioral Healthcare for Children &
Adolescents, Families, Couples, and Adults.†
WHAT EVERY PARENT NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT
HOW TO TALK WITH CHILDREN ABOUT DIVORCE
Children's reactions are related to how the parents decide to tell the child about the divorce. Parents need to consider carefully how they will tell the children and what they will tell them. If at all possible the family should meet together. This process allows the children to ask questions of their parents. It can also help the parents to avoid blaming each other. Prior to this family meeting the parents should discuss specifically what to tell the children. With prior planning, parents can stay calmer which in turn helps the children remain calm. This family meeting should be repeated in time to address other questions and concerns the children may have. A family meeting may seem like an impossibility to a couple facing divorce. It is a time where the contentions of the adult relationship needs to take a back seat to the needs of the children directly affected by the divorce.
What do the children need to know? Children can often become confused with too much information. They need to know their needs will be met, their routine will stay as intact as possible. They need to know they are not to blame for their parents divorce. Children need to know their relationship with both parents will continue and be supported. Children also need to know the truth. Although some information may be too overwhelming for a child to hear (i.e. extra marital affairs, abuse or addiction), information can be given to a child about the divorce at an age appropriate level. As time goes by, the child may need more information to clarify their understanding of the divorce. Above all, the parent does not want to get into a situation where they must retract a statement as a lie. This erodes the safety and security of the family. In that their world has been completely altered it is helpful to tell the children what will remain the same. It is important at this time that a parents words and actions match. Follow through on the plans set forth to the children is important.
Older children (4+) need to know the divorce is final. There is a temptation to tell children whatever may make them feel safe. Statements such as "nothing will change" or "You will see dad as much as before" are empty reassurances. The children know this will not happen. The parents want to avoid giving the children false hopes the parents will reunite. This would be the appropriate time to restate the divorce is not their fault. Children, in an attempt to make sense of the trauma of divorce, will interpret their behavior (misbehavior, bad grades in school) as the reasons for the divorce. They tend to feel guilty which leads to feeling a lack of self worth. Children will have fears and concerns regarding the changes ahead. Take these concerns seriously. Parents need to listen to what their children have to say. It is important for all of us to feel validated and recognized. Parents can demonstrate care and concern by listening closely to what children have to say. It is important to validate their feelings and thoughts. This behavior will demonstrate a parent's ongoing commitment to their children.
Making it Easier for the Children
There are some basic things parents can to do make the transition of divorce easier for all children.
∑ Listen to your child.† Parents need to be able to listen to their childrenís concerns and questions about the divorce as a way to sort out their own conflicts and confusion.
∑ Be as honest as possible. To the extent that it is possible, have discussions about the divorce with both parents present.
∑ Do not try to over compensate for an absent parent.
∑ Parents should not use the children to ferret information back and forth between households. The children are not messengers. It is inappropriate to ask the children to be a spy. If the children do not want to talk about the time spent with the other parent, leave it as that.
∑ Reassure the children often that they are not to blame.
∑ Spouses should not argue while the children are listening. Conflict witnessed by children during and after the divorce adversely affects their adjustment.
∑ Maintain normal routines and activities to the greatest extent possible.
∑ Try to be consistent with rules and discipline in each house.
∑ Do not use the children as a pawn. The children deserve to have quality time with both parents. Don't make the children decide between their parents.
∑ Take care of yourself. You will need to nurture yourself so that you can in turn nurture your children.
∑ Make every effort to maintain consistent contact with the children - even if there are geographic boundaries.
∑ Don't make promises you cannot keep . Too often divorcing parents make promises they cannot keep. These promises are born out of their own guilt. Children do not forget the promises their parents make. Following through on a promises reinforces a sense of safety and security.
∑ Don't criticize your spouse or their family in front of the children.
∑ Your child is not your confidant. Let your child be a child. Deal with your personal feelings by networking with friends or through outside help.
A Child's Understanding of Divorce
A childís ability to understand about his or her parentsí divorce is based on the childís age and developmental stage.† Here are some basic guidelines of what you can expect in terms of your childís ability to comprehend and understand about divorce.
∑ A change in a parentí energy level and emotional state
∑ Older infants notice when one parent is no longer living in the home
∑ An infant's sense of self is a reflection of the thoughts, feelings and actions around him or her
∑ Infants first milestone is to learn about trust
∑ Irritability/ fussy
∑ If parent is depressed, non-responsive or anxious, the infant will become anxious and may stop trying to engage the parent in an emotional connection
∑ Changes in daily routine
∑ If new adult moves into home, older infants may be nervous and fearful
∑ Maintain normal routines
∑ Anticipate eating and sleeping problems
Toddlers (Ages 2 to 3 years):
∑ Recognizes that one parent no longer lives at home.
∑ May express empathy towards others.
∑ Gains a sense of self via adult responses to him or her.
∑ Toddlers milestone is gaining independence
∑ Toddlers measure themselves by the input ( attitudes, words and actions) of others
∑ May have difficulty separating from parents
∑ Able to express anger toward parent
∑ May become worried and anxious when the parent is away.
∑ Misplaced guilt: they will likely blame themselves for the divorce
∑ May behaviorally regress ( lose skills previously developed i.e. toilet training or show behaviors they grew out of i.e. thumb sucking)
∑ Sleeping and napping disturbances (change in routine, older toddlers may have nightmares
Hereís What You Can Do:†
∑ Spend more time with your child during transitions ( i.e. arrive 10-15 minutes earlier when you take your child to child care)
∑ Be consistent in how your respond to your child
∑ Provide consistent verbal and physical reassurance of your love
∑ Understand your child's distress and know that in time, and with support, negative behaviors will disappear and recently learned skills will reappear
∑ Talk to other adults and care givers about how to support your child during this transition.
Young Children (Ages 4 to 9 years):
∑ Recognize that one parent no longer lives at home
∑ Begin to understand divorce means their parents will no longer be married and live together and that their parents no longer love each other.
∑ Begin to demonstrate mastery and accomplishment among peers
∑ Begin to judge self compared to others and develop a need to be accepted
∑ Base self image on how they and others perceive their parents
∑ May blame themselves for the divorce
∑ May worry about the changes in their daily lives
∑ Nightmares related to divorce issues
∑ May demonstrate signs of sadness and grief
∑ May become aggressive and angry
∑ Have difficulty with the difference between fantasy and reality, and may fantasize that their parents will get back together.
∑ May interpret one parent leaving home as a rejection of them
∑ Fears become extended in their entire world
Hereís What You Can Do:
∑ Repeatedly tell your child that he/she is not responsible for the divorce
∑ Reassure your child that their needs will be met and that they do not have to worry
∑ Talk to them about their thoughts and feelings. Be sensitive to their fears
∑ Plan a visitation schedule and maintain it.
∑ Support the children's ongoing relationship with the other parent
∑ Read books together about children and divorce
∑ Gentle and candidly remind children that the divorce is final and that parents will not get back together again.
Preteens and Teenagers (ages 10 years and up):
∑ Understands what divorce means but may have difficulty accepting the reality of the changes it brings to their family
∑ Sill may blame themselves for the divorce
∑ Beginning to develop a moral code based on experiences with parents. Will identify who is good or bad.
∑ Will begin a period of rebellion, by acting out difficult emotions
∑ Older teenagers (13-17) struggle with autonomy vs. acceptance
∑ May feel abandoned by the parent who moves out of the house
∑ May see the divorce as a personal rejection
∑ May act as if nothing bothers them
∑ May withdraw from long- time friends and favorite activities
∑ May act out in uncharacteristic ways
∑ May feel angry and unsure about their own beliefs concerning love, marriage and family
∑ May start to worry about adult matters
∑ May experience a sense of growing up too soon
∑ May feel obligated to take on more adult responsibilities in the family
Hereís What You Can Do:
∑ Although divorce is one of the most difficult life events, older teenagers have more psychological resources for coping with the transition.
∑ Keep lines of communication with your teenager open.† Remember, you can talk at your teenager too much, but you canít talk with your teenager too much.†
∑ Reassure children of your love and continued involvement in their lives.
∑ Talk to the other adults in their life and ask about the child's response.
∑ Both parents need to stay involved in their children's lives, know their friends, what they do together, and keep up with their progress in other activities.
∑ Validate the child's strengths.
∑ Honor family rituals and routines.
∑ Assign age-appropriate household responsibilities and show appreciation for children's contribution.
∑ Avoid using teenagers as confidants, plan time for yourself with adult friends.
∑ Tell children when other people will be attending special occasions with you, especially if itís a new romantic partner.
► CONTACT ME if you have any questions, or if you have any concerns about your child or family.†
DR. ROBERT M. NEWELL
Copyright © 2004-2007 Robert M. Newell, Ph.D. All rights reserved.