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Divorce and Children
CatherineDeMonte, LMFT

How to Tell Children About Divorce - Make the description of the divorce as short and simple as possible. Leave out the lurid details, such as sex, spending habits, bad qualities of the other, etc. What they really want to know is, “How will this affect me?”

Both parents should tell the children together. This sends an important message to the child(ren)–that both parents are still working together in the children’s best interest.

Tell them at home, so that if they want to cry or get angry, they don’t have to worry about being seen in public by strangers. Tell them when they have time to process the news, not in a short window of time, and never right before something important like a game or school.

Be sure that what you share with your child(ren) is for their benefit, not yours. They are not to be a sounding board, they should not be your confidant, nor your therapist. Telling them details should not be so that you can feel better; it’s to give information.

Children want to know how things will affect their world: tell them as much as you know about how their world will look during and after the divorce. Will they stay in their house, go to the same school? How often will they see the visiting (non-custodial) parent? Will siblings stay together? Give them a mental picture of how their life will look.

Divorce will dramatically affect how children will see their parents, their world, relationships, their place in the family, and how they interact with their parents, and how they perceive themselves. Knowing how to cope with issues and how to help children through it is a vital thing for parents to know.

What Are the Effects?

How a child responds to divorce will depend on their temperament, age, the way divorce was handled, coping styles, other co-existing stressors, the child’s relationship with his or her parents, and how much she or he is put in the middle. Younger children tend to have stronger feelings or reactions initially but bounce back quicker, and older children have less salient responses but the effects can last longer. Teenagers may become moodier. Boys tend to get angry; girls, withdrawn. Some children will be flexible and adaptive and some will become withdrawn, sullen, withholding, or will feel “lost.” These are new emotions to a child and their world as they have known it has been turned over. Their inability to navigate these uncharted, overwhelming and unfamiliar emotions may have your child(ren) reacting in ways you don’t recognize. Children will often react to divorce in ways that have been modeled by parents.

It is vital that parents remain in a calm, stable manner and remove the temptation to use the child as a confidant or talk to the child about the other parent. Children don’t divorce the parents, parents divorce each other. Therefore it is vital that each parent make it clear to the child that he or she doesn’t need to show allegiance to one parent or another, and to reassure the child that both parents love him or her. Civility, stability and calm will be difficult to maintain by the parents, especially if the divorce is a contentious one or if there was an affair, but it is extremely important to try. Children look to us as adults to decide how to respond to new and frightening situations.

Be patient if they seem angry after the divorce about things not related to it: e.g. anger at their siblings if they have any, anger towards friends, anger about school. This could be displaced anger. I suggest that if you think your child is upset about the divorce but not saying so although showing anger in places that would not normally bother him or her, to say something like, “I see that you are really mad about (the thing they are expressing anger over), but I wonder if you are also still upset about the divorce. If so, I want you to know it’s fine to share those feelings with me. It makes sense you might still be sad/scared/angry about that.”

Ways to Help

* When it’s time to switch houses for visits, if it’s Mom’s turn to have the children, she should come to Dad’s to get them, rather than Dad dropping them off at Mom’s (and vice versa), so they are “picked up” for visits rather than “dropped off.” For young children, this feels less like being left.

* Reduce the number of changes in your child’s life. If possible, keep them in the same house, neighborhood and school.

* Make sure each parent remains involved with the child(ren). Boys and girls need both mom and dad because both parents are “mirrors” of the child and are vital to his or her growth, development and evolution. Also, both parents staying involved will lessen the feelings of rejection and abandonment and loss that come when a parent “drops out” of a child’s life.

* One simple, easy-to-miss thing: use the same laundry detergent at both homes so clothes, bed and pillows smell the same at each house.

* Reassure them that they still have a family, but that now they will be in two houses, not one. Reassure them that it isn’t about them (although they may still “take it on” as their fault) and reassure your child that you continue to love them, that it isn’t their fault and that, even though you as parents no longer wish to live together, you aren’t divorcing them.

* Keep lines of communication open. They may not have the tools to articulate the myriad feelings they are having, but by bringing up the subject yourself, you are showing them that it is a safe subject for them to bring up.

* Get a large calendar with dates marked regarding when they will be where.

* Do speak directly to the other parent to address a problem or to get information. Do not go through your child to give or get information to are about the other parent. Don’t ask your children about the other parent’s life or circumstances and don’t ask them to keep secrets about you from the other parent.

* Get your own support. If you are doing well, they will do much better. Taking care of yourself so you can be there for them is of the utmost importance.

* It can be helpful for children to see a therapist who specializes in play therapy, which allows children to work out their feelings in a safe, unobtrusive manner, or for teens to have a place to go that is just for them. Therapy is an effective tool when dealing with changes and stressors in one’s life.

Copyright 2014.  Catherine DeMonte.  All rights reserved.

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