Telling your children that you’re getting a divorce can be heart-rending no matter their ages. But informing your young child – and helping them deal with the changes that follow – can be especially tough.
Your child’s developmental stage can play a huge role in how they handle the news. How a young child interprets divorce is vastly different than how a middle schooler or teen understands it. In order to support your child in the best way possible, it’s important to know how they might process your divorce.
3- to 5-year-olds
Children in their preschool years don’t fully understand cause and effect, so they may not comprehend the reason for your split. They may come up with their own idea of what happened. For example, they might think that dad left them rather than dad left mom.
Preschoolers are unable to think about the future in great detail. Therefore, their concerns will probably be immediate: where will I stay tonight? Can I bring my toys? Where will the cat live?
They may think about their feelings, but have limited ability to share them. Consequently, they may lash out or become clingy, anxious or irritable.
How you can help
Preschoolers are very dependent, so showing them that their needs will continue to be met is key. You should provide reassurance and consistency in their routine.
To help them understand divorce, give them short, simple facts. For example, you could gently explain to them that you’re moving out without providing all of the details. Be prepared for a lot of questions at this age – but keep your answers short and to the point.
You should also remind yourself to stay patient with your child. Remember that any unusual, negative emotions may be linked to the separation, even if your child doesn’t explicitly say it.
6- to 8-year-olds
At this age, children are a little more able to talk about their feelings. They may also have a better idea of the larger implications of divorce. For example, they might realize the split means the annual family camping trip won’t happen anymore.
School-aged children tend to see things in black and white. Therefore, they may assign blame for the split to one parent. They are also forming relationships outside of the house with classmates, teachers and coaches. These people may influence how they view divorce.
How you can help
A stable routine and reassurance are still critical at this age. So is effective communication. Your child may have hard questions about the divorce or share complicated feelings. At this age, you can engage in thoughtful, gentle conversation that’s a little more in-depth.
However, they may be upset and not want to talk to you. In this case, there are children’s books about divorce that may be worth exploring. These books might answer their questions and offer comfort.
Divorcing is a difficult process, and telling your kids is one of the hardest steps. But if you understand how they might receive the news, you can adjust the conversation as needed – and learn how to best support them.