As you first tell your child about divorce and as you have ongoing conversations about divorce, it can be helpful to address your child’s concerns without talking over his or her head. Your child’s development will affect how much he or she will understand about divorce, so it can be helpful to know what children at various developmental stages typically understand.
Infants can feel tension in the home
An infant is obviously not going to benefit from a detailed conversation about divorce, but he or she can detect tension in the home or between you and the other parent. This can be upsetting for the baby, which could drive him or her to be clingy or fussy. It could also cause him or her to regress. Consistency, routine and familiarity can help minimize these effects.
Toddlers assume the separation is their fault
Toddlers tend to be self-centered and their main bond is to their parents, so divorce can be very jarring. Toddlers will not yet understand complex events or the concept of divorce, and they often think they caused their parents’ separation. A toddler may seek extra attention, develop a fear of abandonment or exhibit regressive behaviors, so as a parent, it can be beneficial to offer extra attention and reassure your child that the divorce is not his or her fault.
Preschoolers struggle with the concept of divorce
Like toddlers, preschoolers do not fully understand the concept of divorce, but they can identify that they do not want their parents to separate. Preschoolers have a limited understanding of cause and effect and may believe that the divorce is their fault. They often do not know how to express what they are feeling, so reading age-appropriate books about divorce with your child can help him or her learn to express his or her feelings and begin to develop an understanding about what divorce is.
School-aged kids may think they can rescue the marriage
Younger school-aged kids may still struggle to understand what divorce is and could be confused, thinking their parents are divorcing them. They may also believe they can fix their parent’s marital problems. Older kids may have a better understanding of what divorce is, and are often able to express their feelings. However, they often assign blame to one parent for the divorce. Spending quality time with your child can help encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings and may also address feelings of loss or rejection. It is important to remind your child that the divorce is not his or her fault, but it is also important to avoid blaming the other parent.
Talking to your children about divorce can be some of the most challenging conversations you have with your kids. However, when you understand your child’s developmental needs, you can adjust the way you talk about divorce, so your child can benefit as much as possible from the conversation.