Talking to Your Children About Divorce
By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
Many couples will divorce or split up while they still have underage children in the household. As therapists, we are often asked how to talk about separation with children and the general principles are the same as for other big topics with children: address the issue directly, be aware of the child’s developmental stage, avoid overt conflict with or negativity about your partner, be concrete about how this will impact them, and answer any questions that come up.
In general, avoiding any tough situation in a household can create more anxiety in children than acknowledging the issue, given that they pick up on more factual and emotional information than we realize. They may recognize that grandma is sicker than usual, and unless they are told otherwise, may think that she is dying. They may see bad arguments between their parents, or witness a tense distance, and worry about whether their parents will separate.
The second factor to keep in mind is the child’s age. Three-year olds just need to know that their two parents are going to be living in two houses, but that the child will spend time in both. Thirteen-year olds also need to hear the same basic message, however, they will understand words like separation and divorce, will likely know peers whose parents are not together, and will likely have more questions as well as strong feelings that they are able to verbalize.
Reducing conflict and criticism about your partner is essential in minimizing any emotional damage from a divorce. Even if there have been negative behaviors such as substance abuse or infidelity, there is never a good reason to badmouth the other parent to the child, nor is there any reason to go into detail about how your partner doesn’t understand you, doesn’t pull his weight around the house, flirts with others etc. Children love both their parents, and they are not divorcing your spouse — you are. In badmouthing your spouse, you would create painful internal loyalty conflicts, resentment towards you for being “unfair” about their other parent, guilt for listening to negative things about the other parent, and other emotional reactions that would add anguish to the already big change of separation.
When talking to your child, keep in mind that the details of the separation are an adult issue between you and your spouse, and focus instead on the separation’s impact on your child. A lot of the stress of parental divorce can be allayed by these two principles: reducing badmouthing and conflict between the parents and being explicit with the children about what is going to happen. Imagine if you were suddenly told by your employer that you are being transferred, but you are not sure when, where, whether you’d have to move from your house or even your neighborhood, whether you’d be working full time or part time, get a raise or reduction in pay, etc. These unknowns and would create anxiety and stress above and beyond the transfer itself. Thus, tell your children what to expect: Where will they live? Will they have their own room? Will the siblings stay together? Will their pets stay with them? Will they continue to go to the same school? Will they live with one parent and visit the other, or split their time between them? If there is an interim arrangement, with the final configuration not known yet, explain that too, and keep the children up to date.
Finally, be open to questions, not just in the first discussion when there may be shock and disbelief and emotions may be running high, but all throughout the process. A lot of parents worry about what to say if the child asks, “But don’t you love daddy anymore?” You can say something to the effect that you care about daddy, but not in the way married people do, or that you fight when you live together, so are better off living apart. You may need to explain and reassure your children that both of you continue to love them, and that each of you will still be their parent even after the divorce. Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again, if you have a young child; they need the reassurance of repetition. Finally, remember to also note what will NOT change in their lives. In an earlier blog on helping children with change, I mentioned making a booklet about what will be different and what will stay the same, that you can write together with your child and they can illustrate. This is a concrete and even fun way for the younger child to rehearse and internalize what is happening, while feeling grounded in the things that will remain unchanged.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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