Divorce is a dramatic and difficult event, and for some children significantly traumatic. How you tell your children that mom and dad are divorcing can play a big role in how they adjust to the news. Child behavior expert Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., shares advice on talking to your kids about divorce.
Keep the discussion short and simple. Don’t assume your child knows what “divorce” means. Children need continued reassurance about the future and that they are not to blame.
Above all, be honest. Changes are going to happen; if you know what they are, don’t hide them from your children. Try to assure them that no matter what changes take place, you and your spouse will always love them.
Try to keep your emotions in check; it’s very troubling, even frightening, for a child to see his parents cry. Try to maintain the same daily routine for your child.
Keep in mind that when children don’t understand something they often manufacture a reason of their own, so you may need to revisit the initial discussion frequently to help the child process the reality of what divorce means for your family.
Children often maintain fantasies that divorcing parents will reunite. Don’t lead children to believe that you and your spouse may get together again if that’s not true. If the divorce is final, make that clear! If children believe there is a possibility of mommy and daddy getting back together, it will complicate matters when either parent begins to have other people in their lives.
Many children view divorce entirely in relation to themselves. They may frequently ask “where will I live”, “will I see Daddy again”, “what about my sisters and brothers”, “if I’m really good will Mommy come back to live with us”.
Don’t blame each other. For both parents to speak or act disparagingly toward each other will only increase the child’s anxiety and fear about the situation. Remember, regardless of whom the child lives with, he will still have a relationship with the other parent. Don’t try to sabotage that relationship.
Be empathetic; don’t be defensive. Your children may express very strong emotions and say things about how deeply they are saddened by your divorce. This may be hurtful to hear, but it is important to allow your children to express how they feel.
Don’t feel it is a personal assault to hear them talk about how much they miss Mom or Dad and how much they miss the things they did together. The responses to a divorce are very much like the responses to a death. Allow your children to grieve the losses the divorce has created for them in their own way.
If you don’t feel equipped to effectively deal with what your child may be experiencing, your school psychologist would be an excellent resource.
At best, divorce is a dramatic disruption in a child’s life, and at worst a catastrophic trauma. By continuously choosing the right words to say and the right times to say them, you can help your child maintain some stability in their lives and, most importantly, maintain the child’s feeling of being loved and safe through the change.
Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. He is available for speaking engagements.