Talking With Young Children About Divorce

Reviewed May 6, 2016

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Summary

How you break the news and your ongoing attention to your child’s emotional needs can ease his pain and contribute to his positive adjustment.

There are few situations parents dread more than telling a child about an impending separation or divorce. Somehow, in the midst of their own anguish and stress, they must find a way to deliver what usually is heartbreaking news to their child—and no parenting book can prepare them for this traumatic task.

Although any family crisis such as divorce has the potential to affect the well-being of a child, most research shows that 70 percent of children of divorced parents do not exhibit problems, according to psychologist and divorce expert Anthony E. Wolf. How you break the news and your ongoing attention to your child’s emotional needs can ease his pain and contribute to his positive adjustment.

Infants and toddlers

Even babies can sense tension and conflict between parents, and often will exhibit more distress themselves in the midst of family turmoil. By age 2, most toddlers can understand a simple explanation of what is going to change as a result of divorce, but you will have to repeat the words often before they sink in. Toddlers often will regress in areas such as weaning, toilet training and general behavior. Be patient and affectionate, and try to reassure your child by maintaining family routines and activities.

Less is more

Too much information can be overwhelming to a child, says Arnold Stolberg, PhD, child psychologist and professor emeritus  at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Stolberg says parents should state “what is happening, why it is happening, that it’s not the child’s fault and what it will mean,” preferably in 50 words or less. Choose your words carefully and practice delivering them before your conversation so that you can be sure your child hears what you have to say before anxiety sets in and she loses focus.

Experts agree upon the following specific recommendations for breaking the news to your child:

  • If possible, you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse should tell your child together, thus conveying the message that you are committed as parents despite the fact that your marriage is ending.
  • Tell your child on a weekend, and give him a few weeks’ notice to digest the news, ask questions and prepare for any move or relocation.
  • Stress that she is not responsible for the divorce. Many children blame themselves and need to be told repeatedly that they are not the cause of the divorce.

Helping with the adjustment

Other ways that you can help your child adjust include:

  • Work out as many of the practical and logistical changes as possible before you talk to your child, and reassure him that you will do all you can to maintain his routines and surroundings.
  • Talk to your child’s teachers and let them know what is going on at home. Ask that they keep you informed about how she is faring at school during this period.
  • Be as respectful as possible of your ex-spouse. Ongoing conflict puts a tremendous strain on children.
  • Do everything you can to provide a sense of security and well-being for your child. Bedtime stories, favorite meals and extra hugs and attention are especially comforting and reassuring. Be available to talk and listen to your child, and if he seems distant or withdrawn, check in by asking questions so he knows you care.

Nurture the nurturer

Supporting your child through the transition of a divorce is incredibly demanding and draining. Call upon your family and friends to give you a break, and consider joining a support group for newly single parents. Taking proactive steps to ease your child’s post-divorce adjustment ultimately will help transform your guilt and sorrow into optimism and confidence as you strive toward a brighter future.

Source: Meltz, Barbara F. "The Best Way to Tell Children About a Divorce." The Boston Globe. March 29, 1991; Morrison, Terry. "How, What and When to Tell the Kids about Your Divorce." Divorce_Magazine. Com; Raddatz, Martha. "Seven Essential Ways to Help Your Child through Your Divorce." Parents.com. August, 1999; Stolberg, A.L., Camplain, C., Currier, K., and Wells, M.J. (1987) "Individual, Family and Environmental Determinants of Children’s Post Divorce Adjustment and Maladjustment." Journal of Divorce, 11: 51-70; Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce by J.S. Wallerstein and J.B. Kelly. Basic Books, 1980.

Summary

How you break the news and your ongoing attention to your child’s emotional needs can ease his pain and contribute to his positive adjustment.

There are few situations parents dread more than telling a child about an impending separation or divorce. Somehow, in the midst of their own anguish and stress, they must find a way to deliver what usually is heartbreaking news to their child—and no parenting book can prepare them for this traumatic task.

Although any family crisis such as divorce has the potential to affect the well-being of a child, most research shows that 70 percent of children of divorced parents do not exhibit problems, according to psychologist and divorce expert Anthony E. Wolf. How you break the news and your ongoing attention to your child’s emotional needs can ease his pain and contribute to his positive adjustment.

Infants and toddlers

Even babies can sense tension and conflict between parents, and often will exhibit more distress themselves in the midst of family turmoil. By age 2, most toddlers can understand a simple explanation of what is going to change as a result of divorce, but you will have to repeat the words often before they sink in. Toddlers often will regress in areas such as weaning, toilet training and general behavior. Be patient and affectionate, and try to reassure your child by maintaining family routines and activities.

Less is more

Too much information can be overwhelming to a child, says Arnold Stolberg, PhD, child psychologist and professor emeritus  at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Stolberg says parents should state “what is happening, why it is happening, that it’s not the child’s fault and what it will mean,” preferably in 50 words or less. Choose your words carefully and practice delivering them before your conversation so that you can be sure your child hears what you have to say before anxiety sets in and she loses focus.

Experts agree upon the following specific recommendations for breaking the news to your child:

  • If possible, you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse should tell your child together, thus conveying the message that you are committed as parents despite the fact that your marriage is ending.
  • Tell your child on a weekend, and give him a few weeks’ notice to digest the news, ask questions and prepare for any move or relocation.
  • Stress that she is not responsible for the divorce. Many children blame themselves and need to be told repeatedly that they are not the cause of the divorce.

Helping with the adjustment

Other ways that you can help your child adjust include:

  • Work out as many of the practical and logistical changes as possible before you talk to your child, and reassure him that you will do all you can to maintain his routines and surroundings.
  • Talk to your child’s teachers and let them know what is going on at home. Ask that they keep you informed about how she is faring at school during this period.
  • Be as respectful as possible of your ex-spouse. Ongoing conflict puts a tremendous strain on children.
  • Do everything you can to provide a sense of security and well-being for your child. Bedtime stories, favorite meals and extra hugs and attention are especially comforting and reassuring. Be available to talk and listen to your child, and if he seems distant or withdrawn, check in by asking questions so he knows you care.

Nurture the nurturer

Supporting your child through the transition of a divorce is incredibly demanding and draining. Call upon your family and friends to give you a break, and consider joining a support group for newly single parents. Taking proactive steps to ease your child’s post-divorce adjustment ultimately will help transform your guilt and sorrow into optimism and confidence as you strive toward a brighter future.

Source: Meltz, Barbara F. "The Best Way to Tell Children About a Divorce." The Boston Globe. March 29, 1991; Morrison, Terry. "How, What and When to Tell the Kids about Your Divorce." Divorce_Magazine. Com; Raddatz, Martha. "Seven Essential Ways to Help Your Child through Your Divorce." Parents.com. August, 1999; Stolberg, A.L., Camplain, C., Currier, K., and Wells, M.J. (1987) "Individual, Family and Environmental Determinants of Children’s Post Divorce Adjustment and Maladjustment." Journal of Divorce, 11: 51-70; Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce by J.S. Wallerstein and J.B. Kelly. Basic Books, 1980.

Summary

How you break the news and your ongoing attention to your child’s emotional needs can ease his pain and contribute to his positive adjustment.

There are few situations parents dread more than telling a child about an impending separation or divorce. Somehow, in the midst of their own anguish and stress, they must find a way to deliver what usually is heartbreaking news to their child—and no parenting book can prepare them for this traumatic task.

Although any family crisis such as divorce has the potential to affect the well-being of a child, most research shows that 70 percent of children of divorced parents do not exhibit problems, according to psychologist and divorce expert Anthony E. Wolf. How you break the news and your ongoing attention to your child’s emotional needs can ease his pain and contribute to his positive adjustment.

Infants and toddlers

Even babies can sense tension and conflict between parents, and often will exhibit more distress themselves in the midst of family turmoil. By age 2, most toddlers can understand a simple explanation of what is going to change as a result of divorce, but you will have to repeat the words often before they sink in. Toddlers often will regress in areas such as weaning, toilet training and general behavior. Be patient and affectionate, and try to reassure your child by maintaining family routines and activities.

Less is more

Too much information can be overwhelming to a child, says Arnold Stolberg, PhD, child psychologist and professor emeritus  at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Stolberg says parents should state “what is happening, why it is happening, that it’s not the child’s fault and what it will mean,” preferably in 50 words or less. Choose your words carefully and practice delivering them before your conversation so that you can be sure your child hears what you have to say before anxiety sets in and she loses focus.

Experts agree upon the following specific recommendations for breaking the news to your child:

  • If possible, you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse should tell your child together, thus conveying the message that you are committed as parents despite the fact that your marriage is ending.
  • Tell your child on a weekend, and give him a few weeks’ notice to digest the news, ask questions and prepare for any move or relocation.
  • Stress that she is not responsible for the divorce. Many children blame themselves and need to be told repeatedly that they are not the cause of the divorce.

Helping with the adjustment

Other ways that you can help your child adjust include:

  • Work out as many of the practical and logistical changes as possible before you talk to your child, and reassure him that you will do all you can to maintain his routines and surroundings.
  • Talk to your child’s teachers and let them know what is going on at home. Ask that they keep you informed about how she is faring at school during this period.
  • Be as respectful as possible of your ex-spouse. Ongoing conflict puts a tremendous strain on children.
  • Do everything you can to provide a sense of security and well-being for your child. Bedtime stories, favorite meals and extra hugs and attention are especially comforting and reassuring. Be available to talk and listen to your child, and if he seems distant or withdrawn, check in by asking questions so he knows you care.

Nurture the nurturer

Supporting your child through the transition of a divorce is incredibly demanding and draining. Call upon your family and friends to give you a break, and consider joining a support group for newly single parents. Taking proactive steps to ease your child’s post-divorce adjustment ultimately will help transform your guilt and sorrow into optimism and confidence as you strive toward a brighter future.

Source: Meltz, Barbara F. "The Best Way to Tell Children About a Divorce." The Boston Globe. March 29, 1991; Morrison, Terry. "How, What and When to Tell the Kids about Your Divorce." Divorce_Magazine. Com; Raddatz, Martha. "Seven Essential Ways to Help Your Child through Your Divorce." Parents.com. August, 1999; Stolberg, A.L., Camplain, C., Currier, K., and Wells, M.J. (1987) "Individual, Family and Environmental Determinants of Children’s Post Divorce Adjustment and Maladjustment." Journal of Divorce, 11: 51-70; Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce by J.S. Wallerstein and J.B. Kelly. Basic Books, 1980.

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