Helping Children Cope With Divorce at Different Ages
Children cope with divorce differently, with hurts, hopes, reliefs and grief unique to him or her. Regardless of age, a child must manage myriad emotions when confronted with the news that their parents are splitting up.
Parents can help their children cope with divorce by practicing open and honest communication, and also by understanding the differences in how children of different ages emotionally process this difficult situation.
Young children coping with divorce. How to help.
How to tell them: If possible, both parents should be present when telling young children about a divorce. Explain that the parents aren’t going to be married any longer, but that doesn’t change how much they love and care for their child. If a decision about living situations has already been made, tell them about it. Otherwise, wait to discuss this topic until plans are more definite.
Their likely reaction: Young children may or may not understand the situation or the future implications of the decision. Be prepared for them to be upset, confused or even have no reaction at all. Reinforce your love for the child and your commitment to care for them, regardless of their reaction. Don’t belabor the point; allow them to move on from the conversation if they’re ready.
How much to share: Until they develop greater emotional maturity, young children cannot mentally process the complex relationship issues that led to your divorce. Refrain from trying to explain the situation and keep the discussion simple. You might say, “Mom and Dad still care about each other, but sometimes people don’t want to be together anymore.”
Moving forward: Provide plenty of reassurance to young children that they are loved and protected by their parents. Young children thrive on routine, so avoid disrupting their schedule as much as possible. Continue to discuss the new situation and watch closely for behavioral issues that might indicate unexpressed emotions.
Help early adolescents cope with divorce.
How to tell them: Early adolescence — around ages 10 to 14 — is a particularly confusing time for children, when they are at the mercy of rapidly changing bodies and minds. Spouses should tell these children about a divorce together and prepare for them to ask many questions. Be ready with answers but don’t discuss the litigation with them.
Their likely reaction: Do not underestimate the insight your adolescent children may bring to this difficult conversation. They likely have observed tension in the home and suspected problems. Sadness is normal, but children this age often react with anger, lashing out. Adolescents might also be more apt than other children to blame themselves for a divorce.
How much to share: While young adolescents have more capacity to process complex emotions, they remain somewhat fragile and still view the world in black-and-white terms. Honestly answer their questions, but try to offer minimal details about what led to the separation. Children this age might not even care what happened, focusing instead on their own feelings and needs.
Moving forward: Encourage adolescent children to express their emotions through journaling, artwork or other creative pursuits. While these expressions are helpful for all people, adolescents especially may need a tangible outlet to work through their emotions. Continue to honestly answer their questions as they grow older and their capacity to understand evolves.
Help teenagers cope with divorce.
How to tell them: By the time you are ready to tell teenage children about your divorce, they will probably be expecting the news. Although teens are still developing emotionally, their experience in relationships makes them much more attuned to tension between their parents. Be up front with teenage children and tell them as soon as a concrete decision has been made.
Their likely reaction: Besides sadness and a sense of loss, teenagers may feel relief at the news of divorce. If their parents are at odds and tensions within the home are high, teens might understand the need for a change. Their maturity makes them more able to adopt a long-term view, one that takes into account their parents’ happiness and not just their own.
How much to share: Though teenage children can better manage their feelings during a divorce situation, they do not yet possess the maturity and emotional tools of adulthood. Offer them the same emotional care as other children and resist the urge to share details about what precipitated the break-up. As their parent, put their needs, fears and concerns before your own.
Moving forward: Teenagers tend to be so independent, parents may forget to check in with them about their feelings. Teens might even try to prove their maturity by not showing their sadness over a parental divorce. Allow them space to be a child, to cry and grieve in even immature ways. As they mature into adulthood, you may even choose to reveal more about the situation. However, always respect their role as a child and your position as parental protector.
5 Tips to Help children cope with divorce at any age.
- Reassure children that they are not at fault for the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.
- Develop new routines to re-establish a child’s sense of normalcy.
- Keep the divorce process — disagreements, legal matters, financial disputes — out of sight.
- Obtain group and individual counseling to ease the transition.
- Encourage children to share their feelings in a non-judgmental atmosphere.
We recognize that there is no one size fits all and that children cope with divorce in different ways. However, approaching divorce collaboratively and with a healing attitude can help ease the transition.
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