Divorce is one of the largest stresses a child may face. With US divorce rates at nearly 50%, there’s a high percentage of children who need extra support around this. We’ll share four different ways kids will likely experience this, their unique needs, and what you can do to support them.
Perception is Their Reality
Kids of different ages experience the world differently. As their brains develop, they develop social skills and advanced learning, and they will interpret things differently.
Regardless of this – what they feel at their age is very real to them and may be different how we perceive situations. They don’t yet have the coping skills and cognitive abilities we have.
When dealing with divorce, it’s important to remember the special needs of each age group, and how to best love them through this.
Some children are so young when their parents’ divorce that they don’t ever remember them being together. Others are old enough to always remember times when parents were together. They will recall what they were doing when they found out about the divorce and that may be a defining life moment for them.
In addition to their age, all kids learn differently. Please keep this in mind when talking to your kiddos. For some children it’s as simple as explaining dad/mom won’t be living in the same house with them all the time. For others it is viewed as a complete world change. Some may need drawings or to watch a movie with you about divorce.
They will all have questions, and may ask in non-conventional ways, as they process their loss and change. Do your best to answer directly and kindly, and always assure them that this change is not their fault. If they are upset, do not take it personally, but rather confirm you understand that it is difficult, and that you love them.
Understanding the feelings of your children and how they relate to a divorce is extremely important. Here’s a quick guide for four age groups. We go over this in more depth in our Divorced Dad’s Intensive.
Very young children can understand the emotions of people, even if they cannot talk. They can often identify issues such as stress, tension, and they know when their parents are upset.
As a result of this their own behaviors may change. They may cling to one or both of their parents. They may not want to go to strangers. Temper tantrums as well as crying are common. A young child may exhibit changes in their eating and sleeping patterns as well.
Keeping routines as consistent as possible – bedtimes, mealtimes, etc. You may want to keep a notebook to share between houses with observations. Allow them to take a favorite thing (or 3) between houses.
Children from about three years of age to around five will be able to verbalize some questions about the divorce. They will often notice that the other person isn’t around like they used to be. They may pose questions such as why the other parent doesn’t go to the park with them or why they live someplace else.
Answer honestly and openly, ask how they feel about it, and ask if they have any ideas how to make them feel special. If you notice changes in eating, sleeping, or bathroom habits – these may be early indicators of stress.
Children that are from the age of six to about eleven will likely know someone who has divorced parents. They will know what the term means. However, that doesn’t mean they are going to readily accept it. Be ready for some changes in behavior as well as some very tough questions.
Displays of anger are very common with this age group as the children are simply overwhelmed by their emotions. They may lack the skills to effectively be able to handle what has been taking place. Do your best to get them to talk about it even if they aren’t sure what they are feeling or why. Turn up your tolerance to be aware that they are doing the best they know how.
You can also use drawing, acting, building (Legos, clay) or other ways to communicate with them.
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Older children who are from twelve and up often understand more about divorce than any other age group. They may blame themselves or attempt to find more detailed answers as to what was taking place. Chances are that this older age group was aware of some issues in the marriage before the announcement of the divorce entered the picture.
It is very common for children in this age group to be angry at one parent and to want to be a caregiver for the other. Do your best to get your child to see both parents as equals. If you can offer a united front as far as the divorce and caring for the children though it will be easier for them. Children don’t need to be your confidante when it comes to the divorce. Turn to another adult for someone to listen or to a professional counselor. Never ask your child to report on the other parent.
Crank Up the Empathy
Children of various ages will deal with divorce differently and parents need to be aware of it. This is going to be a huge change for them and may be overwhelming. It may take them awhile to identify with these intense feelings. Do your very best as adults to be there for them, validate their feelings and work together for a positive future.
How you approach things with your children during the divorce process will affect them for the rest of their lives. You will demonstrate problem solving, collaboration, creativity and support by your actions.
For the sake of your kids, do your best to have a relationship with your ex on some level. Even if it is nothing more than a hello and goodbye when you exchange the children, the kids will notice it. Refrain from ever bad-mouthing the other parent in front of your kids. This only hurts them.
With this guide, a kind heart, and positive intent, you can you your kiddos navigate through this change, and continue to have a successful life.
You’ve got this!
Chris has worked in tech for 30 years, and healthcare tech for 8 of those. He's on the advisory board of Harvard-Based Think:Kids, and runs Rad Dad Rules. He is the proud Dad of two awesome kids, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.
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