Talking Your Kids Through Your Divorce – Part One (Birth through five years old)
The unthinkable happened, you and your partner made the painstaking decision to separate. But what now? How do you tell the children? Divorce at any age can be an extremely traumatic experience and it is important to feel like you have the tools to say and do the right thing for your kids. Regardless of the marriage, you have your children to think of and put first. Divorce is not an uncommon practice in our society today; in fact, current estimates suggest half of all first marriages will end in divorce. It can be a painful process for all involved, but it is particularly important to talk to children and teens about divorce in an appropriate manner and ensure they have a safe space to process their personal experience. Although they may logically understand separation and see many representations of divorced or blended families, going through it first-hand can be as traumatic for a child as the death of a loved one. Emotionally, kids and adolescents may not have the words to talk about how they feel or understand why they may lashing out; however, it is common to need time to process a potentially sudden and unexpected life change. Through this three-part article series, we will walk through typical reactions you see in various age groups and red flags to look out for in youth. We will also address what you should and should not do as a parent when talking to your children about what is happening between you and your former partner, in addition to typical questions you might hear as the divorce proceeds, and suggestions for age-appropriate answers. Lastly, we will provide a list of resources for each age range to support kids in processing the complex emotions associated with divorce and separation.
Typical Reactions- Birth through five years old
Developmentally, children start forming memories they later can recall around two and a half years old. At this age, they know who people are and can see the world around them. They are processing the divorce even if they do not have the vocabulary to speak about it or do not understand their own behaviors or responses. You as a parent can look for these signs from your infant, toddler, or preschooler to recognize they are processing their feelings and get them connected with resources if they require additional help. This is a critical time to demonstrate compassion, empathy, and understanding, and avoid punishment and verbal displays of anger. Loss of developmental milestones such as crawling, walking, speaking, waking up at night, or wetting the bed are common. An increase in a toddler using baby talk or trying to return to a bottle when they have already surpassed these developmental milestones is also not uncommon. Children can become upset around unpredictable parental schedules when they feel their needs are being met or they are not being prioritized—after all, they may have gone from seeing you every day to not. Separation fear or anxiety such as whining, clingy behavior, fear if a parent leaves, or refusing to separate from a parent may occur. Exhibiting behaviors such as hitting, biting, kicking, or throwing toys are common ways little ones will show anger about changes. Avoiding interactions with caregivers and losing interest in exploring their immediate environment are also common at these young ages. Curiosity is often explored and satiated when we feel safe and stable. Divorce is a time when things are unpredictable, so curiosity may decrease. Confusion and questions may arise as to how routines may change. Temper tantrums and difficulty sleeping may both increase. Beliefs that they are responsible for the divorce or aggression/anger towards siblings if they believe their siblings are at fault, are also common reactions to divorce. Lastly, the child may seem socially and emotionally withdrawn, lethargic, or joyless, and come across as mildly depressed.
Dos and Don’ts for Parents
Parents can help their kids adjust by not putting them in the middle of any negative interactions. In the midst of this process, you are still a human who is grieving this loss yourself while still taking care of work, children, and life. Give yourself some grace and compassion if you have a normal human reaction and need time to have an “emotional meltdown” too. Below are some quick tips for the cautious parent on how best to proceed.
DO – Allow your child time and space to process and feel all their feelings.
It is not uncommon for children and teens to react in various ways when processing big life events such as a move, family passing, or divorce. It is important for them to feel comfortable and not pushed or badgered to feel any certain ways. Let them speak openly and get them help if they are not acting like themselves. Therapists are trained to meet kids where they are, guide them in this process, and provide them with skills to communicate their full range of emotions and needs.
DON’T- Rush them along the grieving process or expect them to react a certain way.
If they have just found out about the ending of the relationship, do not expect them to accept it right away. They may ask questions and be angry or sad. Give them permission to express their feelings however big, small, or silly they may seem to you. Even if a child may have seen, heard, or been exposed to conflict or fighting in the relationship, they may not expect the divorce.
DO- Allow the child to love both parents.
Divorce is hard on everyone. Children should know they are loved by everyone no matter what and that they are not picking a side or going to hurt someone’s feelings if they still love both of their parents. Allow your child to have the relationship they are going to have with each parent. Help them to know that lines of communication are open and safe from everyone. Parents should not display hurt feelings or enforce consequences if your child has regular contact with the other parent.
DON’T- Speak badly about your ex around your children.
You are human and are allowed to be upset too. However, your children should not hear about financial concerns, infidelity, or things your partner did that caused the conflict and end of your marriage. Do not share these things with your children—they do not need to know. Your former partner is half of your children’s genetics, so speak about them like you are talking about half of your child. Would you say horrible names about half of your child? Think before you speak ill of your ex because children hear more than we think they do.
DO- Continue to set fair boundaries and coparent to the best of your ability.
When navigating your divorce think of, and put your kids, first. Divorce is not an excuse or rationale for a child to be rude, disrespectful, or defiant. They are allowed to have feelings, but they also model what they see and hear. Speak kindly and set boundaries around disrespect. Create schedules with your former partner around school, events, sports, organizations, and other familial holidays and obligations to minimize the changes to routines. Boundaries and structure are a way of showing children love because kids need structure and routine. Let your kids know you still expect rules to be followed like the same homework and bedtimes across both households.
DON’T- Allow different behaviors and rules across both households.
This is not a way to punish your fellow coparent and former partner! It will not help you win over your children or harm your former partner if you let your kids stay up late or eat what they want for dinner, somehow making your week or weekend more exciting, or messing with your former partner’s week. This only harms your children and your possibly amicable coparenting relationship. Things need to stay as consistent across both households as possible because it is only the kids who suffer in these exchanges. They see, hear, and feel everything you are doing, so treat them with the respect they deserve and make choices with compassion and kindness.
DO- Ask for and get help to manage your own emotional concerns.
Ask for help if you need it from a licensed therapist. You can always turn to a trusted friend or close family member to vent, but process things with a professional when you need to. If we are going to ask our children to be honest with us, we can be honest with ourselves if we need space and time separate from our kids to process the divorce.
DON’T- Turn to your children for emotional support or advice.
It is okay to show your children you have big feelings too, but do not turn to them for advice or emotional support through your divorce. Find another outlet to process your emotions and do not turn your children of any age into your therapist.
- Why are my parents not together anymore?
Explain to the younger children that their parents will not be living together. For young children terms like “separation” or “divorce” may be confusing so it may be best to use other words. You can let them know that being married is not working anymore, the decision doesn’t change the fact that we are still your parents, and it is in no way at all your fault. Being married isn’t good for us anymore, but one good thing about it was that we had you, and we are so happy to have you.
- Why can’t we all live together/why can’t I decide where I want to live?
This is the time to be a respectful coparent and not put your kids in the middle of your divorce. Letting kids know they will have two houses with people who love them and get to spend time at both with all parties. Let them know they can keep personal items, toys, and necessities at both homes. Refer to the home of your former partner as your child’s other home. Encourage them to make friends in both places and post a shared calendar of time spent both places, and do not act possessive of your child. The job of a court is to be impartial and take their opinion into consideration, but your child should not feel stuck in the middle or have the job of the courts. Take that weight off their shoulders and prevent parental alienation.
- What does this mean for my family?
There is so much representation in our world of different types of families. Let your child know they are not alone, and family can look like whatever you want it to look like. Again, reassurance is key and letting them know that other families may look like theirs. Everyone is still in their same role, meaning the family roles of mom, dad, and siblings are all still intact, only now they can redraw the picture of what their family looks like with more colors.
- Does this mean my parents do not love me anymore?
It may sound obvious but reassure your child every chance you get that they are loved, wanted, and the separation had nothing to do with them. Additionally, tell children at all ages, but especially this young age, that they are not to blame for the separation, as young children will often internalize their feelings and blame themselves. They may not understand this unless you tell them directly and repeatedly. Lavish them with love daily.
- My parent has a new partner/what does that mean?
In many cases the introduction of new partners into a family system at any point after a divorce can bring up unexpected feelings of jealousy, anger, and betrayal by a child or adolescent. At this young age, tell your little ones only the specific straightforward details. That means, mom/dad is dating again, and you are still my priority. This is another person in your life to support and care about you. You can call them by their first name or a nickname, but do not have to call them anything familial such as mom or dad.
If your child still seems to be struggling after an extended period of time, consider reaching out to a professional to help them navigate their big feelings. Remember, your actions matter too, and sometimes we all need help. Below are a few books for children that may help you to find the words to support your child.
- Two Homes by Claire Masurel
- Dinosaurs Divorce (Dino Tales: Life Guide for Families) by Marc Brown
- Why Do Families Change? (Our First Talk About Separation and Divorce) by Dr. Jillian Roberts
- Why Can’t We Live Together? The Kid-Sized Answer to A King-Sized Question About Divorce by Madison Lovato
- Divorce is Not the End of the World: Zoe’s and Evan’s Coping Guide for Kids by Zoe and Evan Stern
- Getting Through My Parents’ Divorce by Dr. Amy Baker and Dr. Katherine Andre
- The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
- My Mother’s House, My Father’s House by C. Christiansen
- It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear: A Read-Together Book for Parents and Young Children During Divorce by V. Lansky