Divorce impacts everyone a bit differently, and each situation is unique. The nature of how a divorce plays out can significantly influence the impact it has on not only the couple but any children involved as well.
Breaking the news of divorce to the kids is something many parents report as being the most difficult part of the process.
Divorce can be difficult for a child at any age, and the approach taken when talking to them, as well as their reactions to the news can vary slightly due to their age and developmental level.
Remaining consistent, showing your love and support, and joining forces on a coparenting front with your ex is one of the best ways to help your child adjust.
It’s important to keep your child out of the middle of the divorce and to refrain from speaking negatively about your ex to your child, or putting them in a position where they could feel like the parent or therapist.
Talking about the divorce with your children is one of the best ways to help them adjust, but only if done appropriately with certain boundaries, guidelines, and mutual respect toward the other parent, regardless of how difficult the process may be.
Start the conversation, and make ample time
Telling your kids about your divorce is the first step toward helping them process and adjust to their new life changes. Opening the lines of communication gives your children an opportunity to voice any thoughts, feelings, concerns, or fears they may have. Do your best to listen and assure them that they have your love and support throughout this time and that they are not to blame for the split.
Breaking the news of a divorce to the kids is oftentimes something parents say is the most difficult thing for them to do. In fact, most parents spend less than 10 minutes talking to their children about it. Despite this trend, talking about the divorce with your child can be good for them, and the way that you approach it may vary a bit depending on their age, or stage in development. In turn, their reaction to the news will also likely depend upon their development stage/age as well.
What age do kids handle divorce best?
Although the way each child handles divorce will vary depending on their level of resiliency, the stress and conflict levels of their parents, and various biological and environmental factors, there are certainly ages where divorce holds a seemingly less negative impact in the moment.
Children who are three years of age and under tend to remember less about their experiences during this time as they grow older. They also have fewer memories of their parents together, so some say this is the easiest age for them to transition because there are no long-term memories of being together as a family with happy times. This in no way means that it is easy on them. These are early formative years that can impact a person’s subconscious in ways that come out later in life as adults, which is why it is important to try to make the divorce as swift as possible, and ensure your child’s environment is as conflict-free and peaceful as can be.
The most difficult ages for children to experience divorce are believed by some to be between the ages of six through twelve. This is because they are able to remember being together as a family with positive feelings or fond memories and have begun to develop and grasp more complex emotions, although they may not yet fully understand it all just yet.
Children may react with fits of anger at any age, but at this age especially, and it is also possible for them to experience:
- Symptoms of depression or anxiety.
- Difficulty in school.
- Conflicts with friends or peers.
- Self-blame for the divorce.
- Acting out behaviors.
- Clingy behaviors, as they seek attention from their parents.
- Feelings of being abandoned of unloved.
- Regressing to a younger developmental stage by thumb sucking, etc.
- Changes in sleep.
- Physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, etc.
- Feeling torn between their parents.
- Showing no emotional reactions (due to internalizing the distress).
Tips for helping your child adjust
When talking to your children about the divorce, it’s important to tell them together as a family and at the same time if there is more than one child involved. It is also important to be patient and answer any questions they may have. Children who are around 7 or younger, may benefit from physical comfort, like hugs. This will help them feel comforted and reassured that everything will be okay. Try to set aside extra time to spend with your child. Verbal reassurance is also helpful.
One of the best ways to help children handle divorce is by providing them with consistency in terms of their daily and weekly routines. You can build on some of your old routines and start some fun new ones in light of the life adjustment to help ease the transition. You may also want to read or watch stories involving the topic of divorce so that the child does not feel alone. Therapy and support groups are also beneficial for children and teens who are going through the divorce of their parents.
What to avoid
Early incidents of significance, including divorce, hold the power to cause attachment injuries in children under the age of 8, which is why it is important to ensure that your child does not feel abandoned or lose contact with a parent, if possible. A majority of fathers have a tendency to become more separated from their children after a divorce, especially if they do not live with the children as often as the mother.
Sometimes, a parent may try to lean on their child for comfort or support as opposed to being the one for the child to lean on. Seek support from a professional counselor or trusted friend if you find yourself wanting to lean on someone emotionally during this time.
As co-parents, it is important to try to join forces on the parental front, if only for the sake of the children. Things to avoid that could derail such efforts include:
- Putting the children in the middle and asking them to choose which parent they want to live with.
- Talking badly about the other parent to your child.
- Talking to your child as if he/she is your therapist, you are the adult and the one who should be providing support to your child, regardless of age.
- Dragging out the divorce process and engaging in high-conflict arguments that impact the child’s environment.
- Ignoring your child or neglecting them due to feeling overwhelmed with emotions.
- Waiting until the last minute to tell them, as they need time to adjust.
- Trying to spoil your child when he/she is in your custody in an attempt to be the fun or preferred parent.
How to talk to your kids when your ex is trash talking you
While you may be doing all of the right things, you cannot control what your ex is doing, and there may be times when they are not following the guidelines of what not to do. This is a time when it is important to take the high road and not engage in any retaliation that involves putting your child in the middle. When your children are not around you are free to react, and this could be a great time to seek the assistance of a marriage and family therapist to help with the transition. Family counseling can also help ease the transition and guide both parents toward a more positive separation where they can become healthier co-parents for their kids.
If your ex is trash-talking you, it’s important to remain calm, factual, and reserved when speaking to your children about them. Do not speak negatively or share any details about the divorce that could place stress on your child or paint the other parent in a negative light, despite the actions of your ex. If your child divulges negative information that your ex said about you, observe it, and let it go in the moment. If it has a negative impact on the way your child treats you, stay consistent with your boundaries and rules. It is not acceptable for them to act out toward you despite the shifting changes in life. Address any concerns they have in a calm and reassuring way and let them know that you are the same parent you have always been and that you love them just the same.
Discussing divorce with your child can be difficult, regardless of their age. The most important things to remember are to tell them soon and together as a family and to be open, honest, and patient with them as they may have questions and reactions that impact them both at home and at school. These hurdles can be managed by remaining consistent and keeping a structured routine for your child. The support of a professional counselor, therapist, or trusted friend can also help ease the transition and help everyone adjust and heal.
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- NDSU. Talking to Children About Divorce.
- HeinOnline. 10 Ways to Talk with Your Kids about Divorce.
- NEBFACT. How Divorce Affects Children.
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- ResearchGate. Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress.
- World Psychiatry. Parental divorce or separation and children's mental health.
- Pediatrics. Helping Children and Families Deal With Divorce and Separation.
- PNAS. Parental divorce is not uniformly disruptive to children’s educational attainment.
- Simply Psychology. What Is Attachment Theory?