“Mom and Dad are getting a
divorce." To children, this statement can mean all different things depending
on one thing – their age. For example, a baby or toddler would have
no idea what this means. A fifth grader may be afraid they’ll wind
up like the boy or girl in their class who rarely gets to see their father.
Or, he or she may be afraid they’ll have to move into a two-bedroom
apartment and share a bedroom with their little brother.
While there’s no candy-coating the breakup of a family, there’s
a lot that divorcing parents can do to put a positive spin on a negative
life event. When you approach the subject with your children, ensure your
conversation and tone matches their age. If you have children of very
different ages, we recommend talking to the children individually before
discussing it as a family. Once the children know, be prepared for them
to ask you a lot of questions in the near future as they begin to understand
what’s going on. It's only normal.
Don’t be surprised if some of the questions
seem selfish. They’re not necessarily selfish, they just reflect the
age-specific problems that each individual child may experience from the
divorce. Here are some of the types of questions you might expect:
- Where am I going to live?
- Why are you getting a divorce?
- Is the divorce my fault?
- Will daddy move away?
- Where is dad going to live?
- Where is mom going to live?
- Who am I going to live with?
- Do I have to change schools?
- Are we moving to a smaller house?
- Will I have to share my bedroom?
- Are you going to have to get a job?
When You Have Small Children
How you approach the divorce will depend on your children’s ages.
Even babies can be affected by divorce, though they are not impacted in
the same ways as an older child. Suppose you have a three-month-old baby
whose mom is a stay-at-home mother, but whose father gets up to feed him
three times a night so mom can rest. If dad moves out of the house and
he’s no longer getting up with the infant every night, the baby
will notice. Babies are more intuitive than many people give them credit
for. M. Gary Neuman, the author of
Helping Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles
Way, said, “They need structure and continuity to feel safe and to trust
that all is right with the world.”
If you split while your child is an infant, it’s best for the non-custodial
parent to visit with the child frequently; for example, an hour every
day, or a couple hours three or four times a week. If the baby will be
travelling back in forth between both homes, it’s a good idea for
you to both purchase identical cribs and crib bedding to maintain continuity;
this can increase the infant’s comfort and security. If the baby
has a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, make sure these items are always
with the child when he or she switches homes.
Toddlers & Divorce
Toddlers are too young to understand things like marriage and divorce.
You can simply say something to the effect of, “Mommy and Daddy
are making each other sad, so we are going to live in different houses,
but we love you very much. You make us so happy.” Since toddlers
are mostly concerned about their daily routines, you want to keep it as
simple as possible. Say, “Mommy is going to live in this house and
Daddy is going to live in his new house.” That’s better than
saying, “We’re going to stay here and Daddy is moving to an
apartment in North Hollywood.” Don’t forget to reinforce the
fact that no matter where Mommy and Daddy live, you both still love your
child very much.
Just because toddlers can’t verbalize their feelings like an older
child, that doesn’t mean they are going through them. If your child
is acting out more than usual, try to help him or her express their feelings
to you: “Are you sad because Daddy isn’t here to read you
a story before bed?” or “How do you feel about going to daycare
so Mommy can work?” One of the best ways to ease the transition
for infants and toddlers is to ensure they have frequent visits with the
Talking to Preschoolers
Once a child is 3, 4, or 5 years-old, they start thinking differently.
If they learn of their parents’ divorce, they may internalize it
and blame themselves for their split. For example, a preschooler may think
their parents wouldn’t have divorced if she hadn’t wet the
bed so much, or if she hadn’t left so many messes in the house.
This kind of guilt can cause a child to worry about the future and what
they’re capable of. “If I could cause my parents to break
up, what other bad things can I do?” If you have a preschooler,
reassure him or her that the divorce was not their fault and that it’
because Mommy and Daddy don’t get along.
Often, preschoolers worry about both parents moving away, leaving them
all alone. In an effort to keep the family together, they may start listening
really well, going to bed on time, cleaning up their toys, and making
their bed cheerfully – thinking that their good behavior will help
their parents get back together.
On the flipside, preschoolers can regress during divorce. Suddenly, they’re
wetting their beds again, using baby talk, or asking for their “favorite
blankly or binky.” If this happens to your child, be sure to shower
him or her with lots of love and attention. The regressive behavior should
go away in two to three months.
Divorce can be difficult for children of all ages, but it doesn’t
have to be a negative experience. Most experts agree that when parents
are loving (and firm) and work together to build a successful
co-parenting relationship, their children have an excellent chance of growing up to
be well-adjusted kids, especially when they maintain frequent and ongoing
contact with both parents (assuming
domestic violence is not an issue).
Need a compassionate Los Angeles divorce or child custody attorney? Contact our office for a free case evaluation!