Divorce is painful. Telling your children is downright difficult. Here are some basics to consider. First and foremost, let your child know he or she will be safe and cared for especially in these earliest formative years. Children younger than four have few if any memories but after that age they do.
Children do remember being told that their parents were divorcing so de-traumatize it as much as possible. Reframe it as restructuring the family and how he or she will be cared for within that new structure. Put yourself in your child’s shoes. What can they understand? If you have more than one child tell them all together. If possible both parents need to be present, then keep it short and simple. Answer questions as they arise. Tell your child you are divorcing when you are positive you will be. If you are not positive do not tell the children.
Chose No Conflict Divorce
As the adults in the relationship, it is important to dump the blame and the conflict. Do it early and stick to it. The damage that is done through divorce primarily comes because parent’s egos get prioritized over the well-being of the child. High parent conflict causes untold damage in your child for his or her lifetime. Divorce is difficult enough for your child so take the high road no matter your feelings for your soon to be ex-partner. Your joint decision to do so will make the difference between stable or poor mental health, and healthy relationships for your child in the future.
The Early Years
Remember from zero to five years old your child’s primary concern will be, “Who will take care of me?” Children at this age are highly dependent on his or her caregiver. They also have a limited ability to understand why one parent is leaving. The child might wonder, “Why did Mom/Dad leave me?” Young children live in the now, so the future is not a concern for them. At this age he or she is egocentric with a limited understanding of feelings or reality.
Scheduled routine and regular care for your child, and yourself is a priority for parents at this time. Utilized your support system, and if you do not have one, develop one.
Children ages zero to five pass through three stages according to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory of children. Erikson believed that healthy balanced adults have resolved each developmental issue as they grow up. Keeping in mind your child’s developmental age can guide you in how to discuss your divorce with them.
Children ages zero to two are experiencing the most fundamental psychosocial stage in life. Your child is totally depending on his or her caregivers for everything that they need to survive. This includes food, love, warmth, safety, and nurturing. Failure to provide enough care and love at this age leaves a child feeling as if they cannot trust or depend on the caregivers in his or her life.
Trust and Safety
If you have a child at this age and are going through a divorce the main communication to these children comes through consistency, emotional availability, acceptance. It is important that the child can trust and feels safe and secure in the world. Despite the turmoil in your life it is essential to create this environment for your child. Finding the balance between trust and distrust at this age assists your child in acquiring hope, being open to new experience while allowing some wariness to develop.
Children in the next stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development are striving to gain a keener sense pf personal control. Children ages two to three are performing more activities on their own creating a greater independence for themselves. Allowing children to make simple decisions and choices in this age range with allow them to gain control and develop a sense of autonomy for themselves and their bodily functions.
As a divorcing parent, it is important to provide opportunities for your child to make choices, gain independence. Allow them to have control over some food choices, toys, and clothing. Answer their repeated questions about divorce simply and consistently.
As your child completes this state you want them to have a balance between autonomy and shame and doubt that will allow them to act with positive intention, within reasonable limits. Consider this as you tell your child about your divorce. Keep the conversation without blame. You do not want the child to think that they are the cause of the divorce because of something they did or did not do.
Developing Sense of Self
In the later portion of the zero to five age range your child will want to start taking control over his or her environment through play and social interactions. A child that navigates this stage will be able to lead others and have initiative. A child’s sense of self develops and a willingness to engage with others comes to fruition. Divorcing parents will want to answer questions simply but directly. Encouraging children to be with others and to act out his or her feelings through play.
Telling your child about your divorce is dependent upon his or her age, and developmental stage. Be cognizant of the fact that the child in the preschool years thinks of his or her self as the center of the universe. The primary concern for them will be, “Will I be safe and taken care of?” Therefore, that is the most question to answer for children in this age range. Consistent care will be the key ingredient to growth and development. Reduce conflict to a minimum throughout the divorce and after. It is the number one best thing you can do for your child in the long run.
If you require guidance, reach out to me, a divorce life coach, counselor and therapist.