Children in the 6–12-year-old age range most need to feel competent. The main question kids at this age have is, “How can I be perceived of as good and avoid being seen as bad?” So, when thinking about how to tell your school aged child about your separation or divorce it is important to keep in mind that although separation/divorce can be a time of great upheaval for all involved, your children can make the transition to the new normal with your love and guidance. What they need from you most is reassurance. Here are some ways you can address some of their fears:
- · Assure them that you both will be staying a part of their lives. When kids don’t have both parents involved in their lives in some way, they may feel like they are not loved by the absent parent.
- · Because your school aged child is always asking themselves, “How can I be good?” – when they hear you arguing about them, they can feel guilty and believe themselves to be at fault in some way. As best you can, try to discuss ahead of time matters that pertain to your children so you can present a united front.
- · Children tend to want to please. When you are speaking about the other parent, please say only kind things or nothing at all. This will help your child not have to feel like they must take sides.
- · Clearly address the changes that will be happening in the children’s lives. Will they be changing schools, or moving to a new place? Knowing what is coming will help your school aged child take comfort that there will be stability in their lives even if things don’t feel stable right now.
- · Give them the ability to ask questions and express their feelings about the situations and let them know you care about their concerns.
A question you might have is knowing how much of the details your children need to know. Keeping it simple and truthful is a great course of action, because if you lie that can break trust. However, be mindful truth must be developmentally appropriate, which means it cannot include adult information such as affairs, and it should not paint a parent as ‘bad.’ Something along the lines of, “We’ve tried to create a marriage we could both be happy in, but we can’t get along anymore like we used to” may be all that needs to be said. Too much information can confuse them, and it is not appropriate for a child to have to ingest adult issues and adults pain, sadness or anger toward one another. Share that with your friends, therapist, family, etc., but not with your child. Also, keeping the information truthful but brief may help you avoid being critical of or blaming the other parent.
Children’s normal responses to an upcoming separation/divorce can include anger, anxiety, or sadness. It can take some time for your children to come to terms with the new normal, but with your continued support and reassurance, they can get there. Your children might need extra hugs, or simply being near you more while they get used to the new reality. However, if your child is exhibiting these behaviors, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional:
- · Sleep problems
- · Poor concentration
- · Trouble at school
- · Drug or alcohol use
- · Self-injury
- · Frequent violent outbursts
- · Withdrawal from loved ones
- · Disinterest in loved activities
To the extent you can have am amicable or at least low-conflict divorce and co-parent that way as well, that will go the furthest to protect your children from negative outcomes and help them adjust to the new normal and have a good relationship with both parents, which is vital to child mental health.