Getting divorced - how to talk to preschoolers about divorce
Those formative years from 0 to 5 and 6 years old are profoundly important for kids. Ensuring you maintain an environment where they feel safe and loved is key. At one time it was thought that very young children are not as affected by divorce as older ones, but the research says differently. Young children may be unable to understand or communicate their feelings as clearly as older kids. Still, they are likely the most impacted by disruption to their routine and environment.
When speaking to children about divorce at this age, it is best to keep the conversation simple and concrete, centred around what changes may happen for the child and what will remain the same.
Of utmost importance to this age is the constant reassurance that they are loved, that it is not their fault, and that they will get to see both of their parents.
Reassure them that the safety and security that the child feels with each of you will not change, and they will still be just as loved and just as cared for. Following the conversation, a lot of physical and concrete reassurance will help the child feel more at ease with the new information. The reassurance will need to continue with each step of the transition for the child, with special attention paid to the child’s specific needs from moment to moment.
Because young kids are highly dependent on their parents, if they have questions, those questions will likely revolve around themselves. Be patient. Answer their questions honestly while being age-appropriate. And yes, reassure them again and again that they are loved.
Divorce with young kids - telling 6 to 11 year olds about divorce
Children between the ages of 6 and 11 typically begin to have a more developed sense of feelings and develop the ability to think beyond what affects only them. They are still not able to understand the more complex details surrounding decisions such as divorce, parenting-time schedules or decision-making. Still, they can generally express what they are feeling. They can even empathize with other people involved. Kids at this age may even wonder how does child support work, and the different types of child custody. It is important to answer their questions and ensure that they are not put in the middle of the conflict between you and the other parent.
Keeping parental alienation factors in mind, it is important that even if kids ask about child support or different types of child custody, that your answers do not unintentionally put your child in the middle of conflict between you and the other parent. Just recently, for example, we learned of a case where a father explained his child support obligations to his 7-year-old using poker chips. This was an example of parental alienation and was the exact wrong thing to do when talking to children about divorce. A 7 year old does not need to worry about child support.
Another factor in this age group is that their world has often been enlarged to include the school community and peers. Let your children’s teachers know of the changes in your home. If your child struggles through the transition, it will be helpful for their teachers and other caregivers to know the context.
Children at this age may or may not want to talk about their feelings, but they will more likely express their distress through fear, anxieties, or fantasies about you and the other parent reconciling. As with all ages, stability is key. They need to know they are loved, that it is not their fault, and they will continue to see both parents (assuming this is the case). Allow them to have their feelings, no matter how strong they are.
Talking to your teenagers about divorce: what to tell your teenager/young adult and up
As if being a teen is not hard enough. A lot is going on with children at this age… puberty and hormones are in full swing, as is the increased sense of independence and questioning of your parental authority. Children between the ages of 12 to 15 years old will also have a greater ability to understand factors surrounding divorce and will be able to participate in deeper conversations surrounding the topic. By this age, other relationships, such as relationships with their peers have become much more important and influential to the child.
Tweens and teenagers will likely want to discuss different types of child custody with you and will want a say regarding the parenting arrangements. They might want to know about divorce visitation rights right away and need to be reassured. Sometimes they will even ask about how does child support work. The important point is that they are not put in the middle of conflict between you and the other parent. So, while you are balancing the importance of the information they are asking, it is also important that you do not put them in the middle.
When talking to teens about divorce, it is important to keep the communication lines open beyond the initial conversation and to allow for more questions and reactions as information is processed. While it may be difficult to differentiate when a child is expressing typical teenage moodiness from irritability or anger that could be surfacing about the divorce, it is still important to maintain a sense of stability at home to help the child feel as secure as possible with all of the teenage issues they are also dealing with.
Like we said, if you have a child in this age group as well as younger children, if you have your discussion with your teen first and invite their involvement in telling the younger children the news, it will provide an opportunity to help your teen feel more included and connected to the family rather than otherwise being isolated while processing the news and keeping to themselves.
Once a child reaches the age of 16 or older, they have a much more developed sense of the world around them including the complexity of issues such as divorce. It is still important to realize, however, that when talking to children about divorce at this age, that the initial and subsequent conversations are no less important.
While they may still seem quite self-centred in their approach to life, their ability to think and reason will help them grasp new information and ask questions to help them process what is going through their minds.
In British Columbia, teens will be consulted by decision-makers regarding what kind of parenting arrangements they will want to see.
As family law lawyers, at Pathway Legal, our years of experience will assist parents gain a better understanding of the different types of child custody and parenting schedules that are available so that the conversations you have with your kids can go as smoothly as possible.
Though children of any age are affected by their parents divorcing, children of this age group are already beginning to prepare for life independently of their parents so they can more easily separate themselves from what their parents are experiencing.
When talking to an older teen or young adult about divorce, it is still important to leave room for ongoing discussion and questions and to be open to hearing their opinions which may be very different from yours and require a response from you. This is one of your most powerful strategies to help your children cope with divorce.
Just like the others, this age group needs the same reassurance. They need to know they are loved, that it is not their fault and that they will continue to see and be with both parents. Even if life moving forward is going to look quite different, their being reassured is key.
Helping children cope with divorce - a deeper dive
Helping children cope with divorce starts with those first conversations. You also might want to explore other resources, such as books, articles, counsellors, play therapists and art therapists to assist with helping your kids do okay.
Kids, regardless of their age, can benefit and fare better with life stressors when they are able to reach out, seek help, and get assistance from other supports that are in addition to you, their parent.