Explaining divorce to young children might seem like a daunting task, but it can be done. There are some steps you can take that are helpful and there are some things you should avoid.
Divorce as an idea is simple enough for most people to understand. But going through a divorce for an adult is tough. It can be a time of confusion, difficulty and disorienting change. If it’s tough for adults, how much more confusing must it be for children – especially small ones? How can explaining divorce to your kids help them to cope?
Many parents put off the task off telling their small children when they separate what is actually going on. Some couples even choose to stay in their house together for longer even after they’ve made the decision to separate, solely because they have yet to figure out how to tell their young children what is going on. Of course, it can be difficult to explain to a child of any age that you’re divorcing, but explaining divorce to young children has its particular challenges.
When we’re talking about young children, we’re generally referring to those who are 5 and under. This includes those who are pre-school aged (usually about 4 years old) and toddlers, who are generally categorised as being 12-36 months old (or 1-3 years). Babies are a little bit harder to have a conversation with, but some of the same ways we approach how we deal with those that are slightly older is the same for both.
What Needs to Be Explained?
Some parents can think that their child is too little to understand divorce so there is no real explanation at all. While they may not get the complexities of relationships they are really big on the ‘vibe’. Not acknowledging that there is change at all will confuse them even further than a bad explanation, so you need to give it a shot even if you think you’re not doing a great job of it. For small children, keeping the explanation to what is happening (obvious changes in day-today living) rather than the dynamics of why mum and dad are no longer going to be together is going to be the priority. Explaining divorce at this point in time should not include blame or manipulation.
They are going to feel upset no matter how and when you tell them. There is no getting around this so be prepared for a heart-breaking response, knowing that even the kindest and most gentle explanation is going to hurt at first.
Keep it Simple
Small children are concrete thinkers. They will be interested in the small bits of their everyday routines rather than being interested in the big picture of Mummy and Daddy no longer being together. California psychologist, mediator and author Joan B. Kelly related the story of a 4 year old’s response to his parents’ very well thought out discussion of how they would no longer be living together but would both still spend time with him. The four-year-old was silent. Then he said, “Who’s going to look after me?” This question is about his concrete, everyday world. Other questions might be ‘Where will our dog live?’ or ‘Who will make my lunch?’.
With their limited cognitive ability, three- and four-year-olds can develop inaccurate ideas about the causes and effect of divorce, says Rhonda Freeman, manager of Families in Transition, a program of Toronto’s Family Services Association. “If Dad’s the one who leaves the home, they might think, ‘Dad left me,’ rather than ‘Dad left Mom,’” she says. “Children need to understand that the decision to live apart is an adult decision. It’s difficult for preschoolers to understand that.”
When explaining divorce, keep to the basics. This will be helpful for your small child. Let them know which parent is moving out and where your small child will live. Let them know how often they’ll be able to see the other parent. If you haven’t got answers for all of these then just give them what you know and keep reassuring them of your love and where they will be living for now. Most small children do not have the ability to think in future terms, really only functioning in the ‘here and now’.
Know that it won’t be one big conversation, but lots of small talks. Make sure you give them space to ask questions – knowing that you may get the same ones repeated over and over.
Explaining Divorce: What to Say
Child therapist Laura Betts gives this as a general guideline for what to say to your toddler when explaining divorce, although your particular circumstances will alter the script accordingly:
Mommy loves you and Daddy loves you very much. But beginning today, Daddy and Mommy are going to live in different homes, Mommy in one home (or house or apartment, depending on familiar language of child) and Daddy in another home.
You will live with Mommy at home and see Daddy. Mommy will take care of you feed you, hug you, give you kisses and put you to bed. Daddy will take care of you feed you, hug you, give you kisses and put you to bed.
Love, Love, Love
Toddlers are quite egocentric creatures and so will need fairly constant reassurance that they are not the reason for changes in their home. If Mum or Dad is upset, angry or sad about the divorce then they will need lots of cuddles and comfort to assure them that they are not the reason for those strong feelings they’re aware of going on. They will need to be shown love and told they are loved a bit more than usual to help them feel secure in what will be a disorienting time for them. That constant reassurance of being loved will go a long way in helping them to make sense of and feel their place in a changing world.
Babies are really not going to understand changes but in their own way will notice a significant attachment figure is no longer there. Keeping the love tap turned on will help your baby to be more settled though this period of transition until they recognise a new kind of normal.
At Divorce Lawyers Brisbane we appreciate that this is a difficult time of transition. We are experienced at helping separating couples to work out Parenting Arrangements and Child Support Agreements. To speak to one of our family lawyers, please contact us today. We offer a free, 10-minute phone consultation.