Divorce impacts children of different ages very differently, and the impact can be ongoing. You’ll need to be prepared for challenges, but by starting right, you can minimize the impact and speed healthy adjustment.
Both parents should tell the children together, if at all possible, and present a unified front. Plan together how you will tell the children about your divorce, what you will say, and just as importantly, what you will not say. Children of different ages can handle different information, so if you have a wide range of ages, keep it simple when telling them together and provide more details to the older ones later, or tell the older children separately so they have more time to ask questions and discuss.
Focus on what does not change: that you are still their parents, that you will both continue to love them unconditionally, and that you want to create a healthy and happy environment for them. Don’t go into details beyond their ability to understand, and don’t place blame on one spouse or the other – and don’t let them blame themselves.
With this general framework in mind, consider the needs of each child’s age-group:
Preschool/Toddlers: This age is self-focused, concrete, dependent, unable to process emotions; they need stability, consistency, and routine.
With this age-group, actions speak louder than words. They need constant reassurance, nurturing, and consistency in routine in order to feel stable and emotionally healthy. Keep your explanations short and concrete: “I’ll be moving to a different house, but I’m still your Daddy and I love you.” The mother would add, “I’ll be taking care of you and you’ll keep living here, but sometimes you’ll visit at Daddy’s house and you’ll see Daddy a lot.” Younger children will need frequent reminders and constant reassurance.
Elementary school age (6 – 12 year olds): This age wants to make sense of the situation, find reasons. Those reasons may be illogical or petty (they may remember a small incident and think that caused the divorce) or they may blame themselves. They are still mostly concrete and dependent and will want to know how it will affect their lives: school, activities, friends.
Be sure to provide some age-appropriate explanations. They will ask many questions, and here’s where your preparation will come in handy. Be prepared with answers they can understand that do not cast blame on the other parent. Try to remain calm. Emphasize it’s not their fault and that it’s okay and right to be sad, angry, confused. Keep open communication with them and watch for mood or behavior changes that can alert you to distress so you can intervene and help them cope.
Teenagers: Teens are more independent, have more external relationships to turn to, and can understand deeper causes, but still need adults to be adults so they can still be kids.
Discuss the divorce with your teens in more detail so they can understand how you’ve tried to save your marriage and why it didn’t work. Try to do so without harming the respect they have for the other parent (unless the cause of divorce is obvious, like substance abuse, adultery, or abandonment). Teens are looking to their parents as examples of adulthood. This could also mean learning from mistakes, so being honest with them about mistakes and how you could have done things differently might actually help them grow. But they still need you to be a parent and not a buddy. They may turn to peers, teachers, and/or coaches for support, but make sure they are receiving this support from positive influences and not turning to the wrong crowd of kids to cope. Consider counseling if you see personality shifts.
For any age group, it’s critical to keep the communication open. Talking to your children about your divorce consists of many small conversations, not one big one. Even if you feel they are trying to push you away or distance themselves, keep trying. They may just be testing you to see if you really love them. Show them by your words and your actions that your love for them will not change, even if other things do.
Contact us at Ulmer Law to see how we can help you through your divorce.