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Talking to Children About Divorce
(Ages and Stages)

Other Articles: CT Divorce Law Primer - Divorce Resources - Divorce Mediation and Collaboration in CT - Ten Tips Regarding Children



North Dakota State University Extension Service

FS-442 (Revised), May 1995

Geraldine Bosch
4-H Youth Development Specialist

Kim Bushaw
Parent Line Program Specialist

Original Link: http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs442w.htm

Reprinted with Permission under Creative Commons license 

Divorce is a Form of Change

Divorce is not the end of a family but a transition to a new form of the family. This transition is usually painful for family members. The distress of the adults can interfere with their ability to respond to their children and their children's needs. However, parents can find ways to help themselves and their children through this difficult transition.

Explaining the Divorce

When do we tell the children about the divorce?

As soon as you think divorce is inevitable, tell them. Don't be surprised if they already know. In the case of a separation, the children should be told at or about the time it occurs. The key is honesty. Don't hold out false hopes that the marital relationship will continue if it's obvious it will not. Don't blame your spouse for everything, and make it clear that the separation is in no way the children's fault. Children frequently blame themselves for their parents' marital problems.

Don't hesitate to get advice from a therapist. Take advantage of the guidance available for you and your children during a time when you both may need it.

How do we tell the children?

  • Keep the explanation simple and straightforward.
  • Have both parents tell their children at the same time to avoid looking as if one parent is responsible.
  • Don't dramatize or become sentimental.
  • Avoid an air of remorse or devastation.
  • Reassure the children that you both love them.
  • Let them know with whom and where they will live if that's decided. If it isn't, both of you should encourage them to express what they want while making it clear they will not have the burden of choosing or rejecting a parent.
  • Don't make promises or hold out false hopes of reconciliation.
  • If there's likely to be a contest over custody or grounds, assure the children they will not have to be involved in the court proceedings -- if that is the case. Children tend to be apprehensive about appearing in court and speaking against a parent in public.
  • Don't in any way encourage children to take sides. Eventually you will have an ex-wife or ex-husband, but your children will not have an ex-mother or ex-father.
  • Assure the children that both of you will always be there when you're needed -- if that is the truth.
  • Get professional help for any child who appears unable to cope with the situation.

Ages and Stages

Children grieve over the loss of a parent in the home. They frequently exhibit behaviors from an earlier stage of development in times of stress.

Infant to Age 2

Common Behaviors

  • Irritability or hyperactivity
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Dreams become nightmares
  • Crying
  • Food refusal
  • Digestive upsets
  • Dull and unresponsive
  • Clinging
  • Begins to mimic the negative or sad voice tone of others.

How Parents Can Help

  • Have parents visit the children rather than having
  • the children move from place to place.
  • Keep the relationship with custodial parent, grandparents and caregivers as consistent as possible.
  • Supply as much hugging, cuddling and lap-time as children need.
  • Provide consistency.

Ages 3 to 5

Common Behaviors

  • Fear abandonment or separation
  • Fear being alone
  • Fear parents will stop loving them because they no longer love one another
  • Regress back to behavior from an earlier stage of development like bed wetting, thumb sucking or baby talk
  • Fantasize about parents reuniting
  • Continue to include Mom and Dad in playing house
  • Misbehave more
  • May act out aggression on dolls or toys
  • May act out angry feelings toward custodial parent
  • Blame themselves for parent leaving
  • Need parental attention/support
  • Decreased ability to learn or remember
  • Difficulty staying on task
  • Preoccupied
  • May experience problems with sexual identity if same-sex parent is the absent parent
  • Possible withdrawal.

How Parents Can Help

  • Provide constant reassurance that the children are still loved.
  • Give reassurance that the children will still see the other parent if this indeed will happen.
  • Reassure children that they were not responsible for the divorce.
  • Admit the pain of the divorce to the children, explaining that the two of you are sorry you cannot work things out.
  • Explain specifically what lies ahead for children regarding living arrangements, visitation and other situations. Calendars are helpful.
  • Keep the day-to-day life as consistent as possible.
  • Stop hurtful physical and verbal actions towards self and others.
  • Provide listening support and substitute activities for aggression.
  • Keep involved as a parent by separating post-marital tension from parenting issues.
  • Keep children involved with the same-gender parent. If that parent is not available, use other resources such as child care providers, Big Brother/Sister programs, relatives.
  • Avoid negative comments about the other parent. Children are a part of both parents.
  • Absolutely do not communicate with the other parent through the children. If parents cannot speak appropriately to one another by phone or face to face, utilize a mediator or send notes and letters.
  • Never ask children to report on the other parent's dating behaviors.
  • Talk with other parents struggling with the same issues.

Recommended Reading

Brown, K., & Brown, M. (1986). Dinosaur's Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press. Uses cartoon characters to help children understand difficult concepts and definitions related to divorce. Ages 4 and up.

Prokop, M.S. (1986). Divorce Happens to the Nicest Kids. Warren, OH: Alegra House. A self-help book for children ages 3 to 15 and adults.

Ages 6 to 8

Common Behaviors

  • Sex-role identity difficulties if lack of contact with same-sex parent
  • May idealize the absent parent
  • Often more aggression and anger shown toward mother if she is custodial parent
  • Feel betrayed by parents
  • Attempt to take on role of protector, often destroying any normal routine
  • Nightmares of violence and disaster
  • Break into tears easily
  • Separation anxiety reappears
  • Feeling of "what are we going to do" panic may result in severely disorganized behavior
  • Cannot use fantasy to deny as preschoolers can, yet not mature enough to understand the grief process
  • Difficulty letting go and grieving
  • Easily distracted, difficulty focusing on work or learning
  • Feel parent took an active and deliberate role in leaving
  • Feel unloved, and may make up stories about the absent parent
  • Lonely for one parent when staying with the other
  • May complain of stomachaches or headaches
  • Claim all is well, deny any discomfort or sadness
  • May develop long-term unhealthy coping patterns such as lying, stealing or aggression
  • Demand more to compensate for having less, even to the point of stealing
  • Struggle with pressure to support one parent or the other
  • May attempt to connect mother with new partner
  • Strong desire to reunite parents.

How Parents Can Help

  • Don't suggest to children that they need to be "the head of the house" or "homemaker" now. They often take this quite literally. Oftentimes in divorced families, children become "parentified."
  • Explain reasons for the divorce in terms they will understand.
  • Accept the children's feelings as natural without trying to change them.

Recommended Reading

Alika (1986). Feelings. New York: Mulberry Books. Ages 6 to 12.

Heegaard, M. (1991). When Mom and Dad Separate. Minneapolis: Woodland Press. Ages 6 to 12. A book for children to illustrate.

Ages 9 to 12

Common Behaviors

  • Loyal to both parents
  • Actively angry, highly expressive
  • Use anger as a defense against hurt, depression and shock
  • Puberty begins and is sometimes difficult, especially without a same-sex parent available
  • Often appear more "together" even if struggling
  • See parents as violating rules they have been taught
  • Feel lied to
  • Attempt to get back at the parent they hold responsible for the divorce
  • Manipulative behaviors including "games" between parents
  • Ashamed of what is happening to their family
  • Emphasize peers and what they think are important
  • Confused trying to understand who they are and where they fit
  • May often cover up with negative coping behaviors
  • Headaches or stomachaches common when parents are in conflict with each other
  • Often choose sides on issues with one parent.

How Parents Can Help

  • Don't select children as allies against the other parent.
  • Stress positive points about the other parent to the children, especially at this stage when children tend to base their self-concept on their parents' perceptions of them.
  • Be particularly cautious of statements made about similarities in appearance to the other parent.
  • Provide firm, consistent parenting.
  • Accept children's feelings even though it may be hard. They need to see, hear and feel love.
  • Help children maintain a relationship with the same-sex parent, especially now during puberty.
  • Normalize children's activities as much as possible by involving them in healthy ventures.
  • Help children understand they do belong and they are important members of the family.
  • Schedule alone time with children for each parent unless any danger such as abuse is involved.

Recommended Reading

Blume, J. (1979). It's Not the End of the World. New York: Bantam Books. Older elementary school through teens.

Krementz, J. (1984). How it Feels When Parents Divorce. New York: Knopf. Children's feelings expressed in their own words. Older elementary and up.

Ages 13 to 18

Common Behaviors

  • Anger at parents for divorcing, may be turned against people or things
  • Relationship with parents may be more distant as they become more independent
  • May blame parent they hold responsible for the divorce
  • May criticize parents and vow not to make the same mistakes
  • May be responsible for younger children
  • Difficulty in choosing sides on issues regarding parents
  • May appear more mature than they are at this age
  • May choose to avoid conflict in the family by leaving either physically or emotionally
  • At a greater suicide risk; may become withdrawn, depressed and isolated
  • May get involved in alcohol, other drugs or inappropriate sexual activity to escape pain
  • Can make decisions that will alter their lives in dramatic ways positively or negatively
  • May begin to get involved in older-than-their-age activities, take on more than they can handle
  • May regress back to childish behaviors becoming dependent again
  • Often not sure where to go when they are "going home" to visit, particularly for children in families that have moved
  • Difficulty witnessing a parent dating again
  • Exploring own sexual issues, makes it difficult to see parents expressing affection to new partners
  • May wonder about their ability to follow through with a relationship when parents failed
  • May actually feel relieved that the constant conflict is over when the parents separate, particularly if violence was an issue.

How Parents Can Help

  • Be honest with teens to avoid any distrust.
  • Empower teens through negotiation.
  • Avoid any critical comment of the other parent.
  • Allow teens to make their own determination of the other parent.
  • Provide consistent rules and guidelines from both parents.
  • Maintain stability. Avoid enormous change if possible.
  • Talk about teens' fears of being abandoned.
  • Enter teens in supportive counseling if necessary.
  • Avoid seeing teens as the problem.
  • Avoid overburdening teens with parental chores/tasks.

Recommended Reading

Gilbert, S. (1982). How to Live with a Single Parent. Silver Spring, MD: New Beginnings, Inc. For young adults and parents.

Brogan, H., & Maiden, U. (1986). The Kids' Guide to Divorce. New York: Fawcett Crest Publishing. Preteens and teens.

The bottom line is that divorce is very hard for children. But if parents work through divorce together in a reasonable, amicable way and focus on the needs of their children, they can minimize the negative effects and help their children to be healthy people.

Recommended Reading for Adults

Kalter, N. (1990). Growing Up With Divorce. New York: Fawcett Columbine. Detail on behaviors at different age levels and how to help.

Garon, R., & Mandell, B. (1985). Talking to Children About Separation and Divorce. Columbia, MD: The Family Life Center, Inc.

Adapted from the following sources:

Abelson, D. (1983). Dealing with the Abdication Dynamic in the Post Divorce Family: A Context for Adolescent Crisis. Family Process, 22, 359-383.

Francke, L.P. (1983). Growing Up Divorced. New York: Lincoln Press/Simon and Schuster.

Friedman, J.T. (1984). The Divorce Handbook. New York: Random House.

Hetherington, E.M. (1979). Divorce: A Child's Perspective. American Psychologist, 34(10), 851-858.

Michelle, A.K. (1983). Adolescent Experiences of Parental Separation and Divorce. Journal of Adolescence, 6(2), 175-187.

Wallerstein, J.S., & Blakeslee, S. (1990). Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce. New York: Ticknor and Fields.

Wallerstein, J.S., & Kelly, J. (1980). Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

FS-442 (Revised), May 1995

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One of the things I have learned from adult children of divorce is that parents often fail to explain the breakup. From the child's point of view, the divorce struck like lightning from a clear blue sky. It was an unforgettable shock that blew the family to pieces. Dr. Judith S. Wallerstein


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