“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 noncustodial parent.
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!