Talking to Children During Divorce
Maintaining good parenting is oftentimes difficult while grieving the loss of a relationship and being preoccupied with the preparation of court documents, attorneys, and court dates. It is important to separate adult issues from interactions with children; however, it is necessary to have discussions with children about the divorce on their level. The age and developmental level of the child will depend on how much he/she can comprehend.
Children aged 0 to 5 lack the ability to understand complex situations, anticipate future occurrences, and understand their feelings. Children in this age range are highly dependent on their parents and believe that the world revolves around them. The line between fantasy and reality is fuzzy. Their ability to process their feelings is limited, which is why children in this age range express themselves through clinginess, anxiety, whininess or irritability when distressed. Distress in this age range may also manifest itself through regression, such as bedwetting. Discussions should be kept short and limited to basic explanations as to which parent will be moving out into another home, where the child will live, who will look after him or her, and how often they will see the other parent. If the child asks more questions, answers should be kept simple enough for the child to understand. Parental priorities are to provide consistency in care and nurturing for stability; maintain a consistent routine (meals, playtime, bath, bedtime); consistency in being present for the child.
Children aged 6 to 8 have a greater ability to comprehend and articulate their feelings; a less egocentric view of what is happening, but still limited in understanding complex issues; and developing friendships outside the home. By this time, they have established stronger bonds with their parents and may show favoritism for one parent. It is important that parents refrain from disparaging one another when discussing divorce and simply explain to the child that his/her parents were unable to get along, so it was best that they live separate and apart. Parents need to assure the child that they will always be there to look after him/her even though they are separated.
Children aged 9 to 11 are more developed in their ability to process and discuss feelings and emotions related to the divorce and have established relationships outside the family (friends, teachers, coaches). Children in this age group see things as black and white and may feel responsible for their parents’ divorce. Thus, parents need to assure their child that they were not the cause of the divorce, that parents were simply no longer able to get along, and the child will always be loved by both parents. Children in this age category are further developed and able to pinpoint specific emotions making it easier for parents to discuss these emotions and work through them.
Children aged 12 to 14 have a greater capacity to understand complex issues such as divorce and participate in lengthier discussions. They have a greater desire for independence, and relationships outside of the home are becoming important. Preteens and teens desire connections, even though they act like they do not care, and may even “test” their parents to see if they care. Children who are in distress during this age, may exhibit anger, irritability, withdrawal and/or start showing signs of depression. It is critical for parents to be consistently present and available for discussions. 2
Children aged 15 – 18 are able to comprehend complex issues, have lengthier discussions, articulate their emotions to work through them. They are trying to break away from their parents to become independent. By now, they will have established relationships and interests outside the home. Due to their developed sense of self-awareness, teens will wonder if they are the cause, what they could have done differently to prevent the divorce, and what they can do to remedy the situation. It is important at this stage to provide reassurance that they are not the cause, it will not change the love and support parents will consistently provide, and everyone is better off if parents live separate and apart.
It is challenging to discuss divorce with your child at any stage of development. It is recommended that parents present a united front, if possible, when initiating the discussion. It is also recommended that parents initiate the conversation with their child when it will not interfere with their education or extracurricular activity (i.e. during exams, before a sports tournament, or recital). Ideally, it is best to sit down with the child on a Friday evening or during school recession so the child can process the conversation on their time and level. Be prepared to answer any questions and to assure the child that he/she was not the cause, they could not have done anything differently to prevent this, and that both parents will always be there to love and support the child. The parental priorities are to maintain a sense of normalcy in the child’s routine, education, and extracurricular activities.
Assure your child that you will adhere to a parenting time schedule which will allow the child to spend time with both parents, and which will not interfere with the child’s ability to attend school, participate in extracurricular activities, and spend time with friends. Provide specific information for your child as to how holidays, birthdays and special occasions will be celebrated and prepare the child well in advance so the child can adjust. Be prepared for the child to fluctuate between a range of emotions and pay close attention to any signs of distress (emotional and/or physical) in the child. If the child is having difficulty adjusting, establish a network of support for the child through extended family, friends, teachers, coaches, church clergy, etc. Do not feel like you failed your child if you need to seek therapeutic intervention for yourself or your child. In certain instances, professional therapy and counseling will help to strengthen the bond and relationship between the child and parent(s) for years to come. Our Chandler divorce attorneys know that the process is never easy, but if parents consistently keep the best interests of the child in mind, everyone wins.