Spouses have a choice to divorce. Children don’t. Older children may have some say about which parent they live with, but the result of a divorce is that children will now spend time in two homes instead of one. Their confidence will be shaken because the closest relationship in their life – the bond between their parents – is broken. Divorce is never easy on children but there are many steps parents can take to help children understand, cope, and lead happy, healthy lives.
Folks often focus on their side of the mirror when discussing divorce with peers, but as a parent, what you say and how you say it to your children is a matter of critical importance. The single most important thing you can do is create an environment where your children know you love them, that you will protect them, and that your divorce has nothing to do with them.
There are numerous publications that offer advice. Today’s Parent offers some suggestions based on the child’s age. We share those suggestions here, as well as our own based on our years of experience handling family law matters in New Orleans.
Talking to children 0-5 years old about divorce
Preschoolers may have some understanding of divorce, but they also may have difficulty distinguishing their mom and dad from superheroes. Many preschoolers spend most of their day with one parent or primary caregiver, and both parents at night. Any change in that routine will naturally be quite upsetting. Preschoolers may become anxious or irritable. They may have difficulty sleeping through the night. They may exhibit regressive behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting.
The conversations should focus on basic information that focuses on your child, like where the child will sleep, what days they’ll see each parent, and whether they’ll still get to see their friends and keep their toys. If they ask you why you don’t live with “Mommy” or “Daddy” anymore – and they likely will – keep the focus on them. Saying things like “We don’t love each other anymore” is, frankly, a bad idea at any age.
Consistency matters at this age, so develop a routine – and stick with it, even if it’s a challenge for you and your co-parent.
Talking to children 6-11 years old about divorce
Generally, children six to eight years old can talk about their feelings more effectively than toddlers, though they may struggle to articulate their exact emotions. One of the primary concerns children this age have will be about school: will they continue to go to their current school? Will they have to change schools? And if so, will they lose all their friends?
At this age, children may also ask – directly or indirectly – if they are to blame for your divorce, or start to act out in ways that they believe could facilitate a reconciliation. These can be very difficult moments for parents, and the urge to tell them “the truth” will be strong, because then they’ll know it wasn’t them, right?
One way to help your children is to be open and honest about your own feelings, without talking about the details of your divorce. It’s okay to tell them that some days you’re sad or angry, and to show them ways to deal with those feelings in constructive ways. Some examples include having your children write those feelings down (in a private diary or journal), or creating some kind of artwork to express their feelings.
Talking to pre-teens and teenagers about divorce
At these ages, parents can expect more difficult, probing questions from their children. They may also be the target for their children’s anger. Divorce is a big change at a time when children are experiencing a number of other changes in their bodies and minds, and you may find that they lash out OR withdraw, ask questions about details OR tell you they “don’t care.” They likely have friends whose parents have divorced, and they may seek solace with those friends instead of with you or your co-parent.
Just because your children are older, however, doesn’t mean they need to be privy to the details of your divorce. In fact, sharing too many details can be harmful; it can look as though you are trying to get them to “pick you,” or bias them against their other parent. Don’t discuss things like support or arguments you’re having with your children; instead, remind them that you love them, your ex-spouse loves them, and that this is all that matters.
Furthermore, remember that every child – no matter the age – needs boundaries. Make it clear that details of why you divorced are off-limits, but that they are always safe to tell you how they feel. Set parameters for what is acceptable and what is not. For example, you may decide it’s okay for your children to use some less-than-polite language when expressing their feelings, but not to use that language towards you. Or, you may decide that yelling is allowed, but screaming at you or your co-parent is not. Give them room to express themselves, but be firm about what behavior is acceptable in private AND public, and what is not.
One thing to note is that teenagers usually do have some say about which parent they live with. Resist the urge to try to sway them to living with you; instead, allow them to make the decision and abide by it, even if it’s not the one you hoped they would make. It may be beneficial to speak with a counselor or therapist about your own feelings, and to have your children speak with someone as well.
Overall considerations about children and divorce
In short, these are the things to remember:
- Your divorce is YOUR divorce, not a divorce from your children. They need to feel safe and secure at any age.
- Keep the conversation age appropriate. Details aren’t necessary – but reassurance of their place in your home, heart, and life is.
- Kids will express themselves differently at various ages, and you may not always like what they have to say. Set boundaries for what you will accept, but remember that this expression of feelings and emotions is an important part of their development.
- It’s okay for parents to say their children need help. Seek professional counseling or guidance for yourself as well as your children if you’re struggling. Remember that your kids may be quicker to confide in a friend or even a teacher first.
- Communication is key between you and your spouse. It’s okay to feel angry, but don’t argue in front of your children. If you can present a united front in how you discuss the divorce, and how you will handle their questions about it, it may help ease their transition – and yours.
Speaking to a teenager is much different from speaking to a pre-teen, which is much different from speaking to a toddler. Our New Orleans family law attorneys have the experience and resources to help you navigate the emotional issues in a divorce. We’ve helped numerous families with children move forward when the marriage ends. We don’t just understand the legal issues; we understand the practical issues that most families face. Our team also works with child psychologists who are skilled at helping children express their hurt, feelings, and concerns. We also work with mediators and other specialists who help negotiate agreements that always place the best interests of children first.
At the New Orleans Law Office of James A. Graham, we understand the trauma of divorce. We’ll help you and your children secure your/their emotional futures as well as your financial futures. We’re connected throughout St. Tammany Parish, Orleans Parish, and the surrounding parishes, James is known as an established family law attorney who cares about his clients and their children. Please call us or complete our contact form to schedule a consultation with a divorce lawyer in New Orleans.