The emotional reactions of very young kids to the new of divorce is very different than those of older children. There are some feelings that are similar regardless of age. BUT Young kids are more disrupted because of their limited experience and ability to cope with stressful emotions and major changes. They have a hard time grasping the idea of a problem that cannot be fixed. The change in the family structure that results is difficult for them to accept.
Explaining Divorce to Children
Both parents need to sit down and talk with kids! Using simple and honest terms. You could say
“Mom and dad have something important and hard to talk about. You know we love you very much and we will always love you. We will always be your mom and dad. You may have noticed that we are having trouble getting along with each other. We have a lot of grown-up problems. There problems have nothing to do with you (kid(s)) or anything you have done. We have tried very hard to fix our grown-up problems, but we can’t seem to fix them by living in the same house. So we have decided to divorce (have a separation). That means we will each live in a different house. You will always see us. But you will spend part of your time in Mom’s house and part of your time in Dad’s house.”
Some experts suggest to first start by talking about a “separation” not a divorce. Even if you are certain that a divorce will be the end result, it is best at first just to say what’s true: “Right now we are taking it one step at a time and planning a separation, and living in different houses.” You can then have a follow-up conversation and let your child know the next step. Once the divorce is decided you can tell your child: “Remember when we talked with you about having a separation? Well we have decided that the best thing for us to do is to continue living apart because we have grown-up problems that can’t be fixed. When parents continue to be separated it’s called a divorce.”
Helping You Child Cope with Divorce
Tell kids about changes in very simple ways. Their thinking is concrete and their understanding of emotions is basic. Your talks need to reflect this. Also give your child information in small doses so you do not overwhelm them.
Feelings of confusion and Lack of Comprehension
Young kids are commonly stunned and confused at first. They just don’t get it and then the news becomes emotionally overwhelming. Slowly repeat what you have told them and continually reassure them that they will always have a mom and dad who love them. This will be calming to them. Ask them if they have any questions or specific worries. Clarify their confusion.
Feeling of Anxiety
Kids will have tremendous anxiety when they learn that their mom and dad will no longer live together. This anxiety will be very basic and centered around practical worries and fears: “Who will make my lunch if… ?” or “Where will I keep my toys if I have two houses?” Just answer their questions in simple language and continually reassure them that they will be safe and well taken care of – this will help lessen the anxiety.
Feelings of Loss and Sadness
Children have lost the only family structure they have known, a lifestyle they’ve grown used to, and the home they know. Adults also feel loss but also some relief and happiness to be out of an unhappy situation. kids on the other hands, almost always prefer that their parents stay together, even in cases of significant parental conflict. Understanding this common childhood reaction and giving your child room for this feeling is essential. Remind your child that they have not lost a mom or dad and that both of you will always be actively involved in their life.
Loss of Control
Divorce are adult choices that are handed down to the child. The child’s reaction is often “No one asked me.” Help your child verbalize this in order to facilitate some relief. Explain that this is a grown-up’s choice. Giving kids control over small aspects of their lives and pointing out where they do have control (choosing clothes, picking out vegetables for dinner) helps them feel like they have not lost total control in their lives.
Feelings of Anger
Anger is a very common reaction. The origin may be because of a lack of control over choices, feelings of loss, or inherent stress of going back and forth between two homes. Anger may also be a defensive mechanism – it is easier to lash out than to feel or express pain or anxiety. Realizing that anger is a normal reaction to this major life change helps parents better tolerate it. You can help by encouraging verbal expression and giving your child the words to use. Also reassure your child that this is okay and you want them to express their anger. If specific things are causing stress, find simple solutions. For example if your child misses mom while with dad – create a generous policy allowing phone calls to his mom.
Regression and Acting Out
Kids this age have few ways to appropriately express their feelings. They may engage in regression behavior (whining, clinging, etc). or express themselves in destructive ways (refusing to cooperate, hitting when frustrated, breaking family rules). ?Your child may be able to tell you what is troubling them and sometimes they will not. So you’ll need to ascertain what is happening. You might say “I wonder if you’re really upset about our separation, not about getting a bath, you can tell me those feelings, but refusing to take your bath tonight is not going to help with those mad and sad feelings.”
Loyalty Conflicts and Acting Out
Children worry that if they love and feel close to one parent they are being disloyal and hurting the other parent. These feelings are made worse by how parents act. If one parents is feeling sad and angry about the separation – the child will sense that and feel protective of that parent and feeling angry at the other parent for “causing” the other parent harm. Then when the child is with the other parent or thinks fondly of their other parent – they will feel disloyal. It is best for parents to contain their negative feelings and the pain they are experiencing when around their child. This helps free children of loyalty worries and feelings that they need to take care of their parents.
On Healing and Recovery
One of the most helpful and healing things that a parent can do in a divorce is to communicate positive thoughts and feelings about the other parent. This is a large task – since divorce means you are unhappy with each other! But kids benefit the most from hearing good things about their mom and dad. Be honest of course and look for opportunities to say nice things. If they say “I had so much fun painting rocks at mom’s house.” — reply with “That is wonderful – your mom is a great crafter/artist/painter…” Clarify things that will be changing – be available to answer questions – Repeat and reassure your kids.
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