When you decide to divorce, and need to tell the kids, how do you know how to approach the subject based on their ages? It’s actually very different based on stages of their development and how their brains work. Read on to learn how to navigate this conversation.
Developmentally, children this age are really unable to process or understand language at all, let alone language about divorce, thus, you don’t really have to ‘tell’ them. Here’s what to do:
- Tell them in simple terms that mommy and daddy have decided to live in different places
- Assure them that you both love them very much
- Be as consistent as possible in their routines and visits as you can
- Help them be able to rely on each of you by showing them they can count on you
- Show them that they will get a bedtime story from each of you
- Show them that their boo boos will be kissed by each of you
- Show them that both mom and dad will make their favorite food and tuck them in at night
They need consistency in every way you can manage.
>Ages 3-5 [Preschool]
In this stage of development, kids are super egocentric. Preschoolers think the whole world revolves around them. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a preschooler to think that THEY are the reason mommy and daddy are divorcing. In this case, you need to communicate that it is a grown-up decision that has nothing to do with them and that you have decided that you want to live in separate places from each other. They will need a lot of reassurance about this. Explain that they will get to be with each of you, but don’t make promises that you can’t keep–like for shared holidays or similar things.
Then, your responsibility is to help them with their feelings by reassuring them that it’s ok to feel sad. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you are sad, too. Model the behavior of feeling sad, and working through it. Validate their feelings. They might also not be able to express how they are feeling, so keep an eye out for changes in behavior. If you do notice this, consider getting them help from a professional counselor or therapist. Some other ideas:
- Read books to them about divorce that are age-appropriate might be helpful.
- Give them a special stuffed animal that goes back and forth to each of your homes.
- Stay as connected as possible with them while they are at your ex’s home.
- Work together to make an arrangement that is best for your child.
While better able to communicate their feelings, kids of this age, especially on the younger end, are still pretty egocentric. Like preschoolers, they will need extra assurance that your split has nothing to do with them and that you both still love them. Kids on the older end of this range may have a lot of feelings that they don’t know how to or won’t want to express to you. Keep lines of communication open. Offer your ear, but don’t incessantly ask them how they are feeling about it. They will just get mad and shut down.
For the younger end of that range, books can be great discussion openers and you might get a bit of insight into their feelings. Validate their feelings rather than telling them to cheer up. This way they will learn that they are heard and that their feelings are okay to have–good or bad. Finally, if you notice behavioral and mood changes that persist or start to affect their everyday lives, seek help from a professional.
This age group is smart, intuitive, and probably knows all about divorce from friends. They may or may not have an opinion about your choices, and they might even tell you those opinions. The important thing with this age group is to tell them the truth but no details about court decisions, who said what, lawyers, alimony, or anything like that. Those are adult problems and issues and should rest solely on the hearts of adults. They may have a lot more questions than the younger groups of kids. Answer them honestly and in a very general way. It is better if you and your ex can tell them together so they are hearing a united message from you both.
This age group is also prone to testing limits. They may try to play you and your ex against each other when it comes to rules, chores, curfews, and the like. It’s best if you can coordinate with your ex to have similar expectations of behavior at each household and to show a united front if you see this type of manipulation starting to happen.
Teenagers can be angry and withdrawn [because of their age], but also because of your divorce. The better you and your spouse prevent your kids from seeing disagreements or discord between you both, the better off they will be. They didn’t sign up for this, and likely have had to put up with two unhappy people for quite some time leading up to the divorce, so give them a break.
Try to get them to talk about their feelings in a non-threatening way–instead of always asking, ‘How do you feel?’, try saying ‘A lot of kids are upset when their parents divorce. It’s normal’.
The common thread here is that communication is key, and presenting a united front to your kids is super important and will only help them. Remember, your kids love BOTH of you, and you owe it to them to not put them in the middle. I know you can put them first, and they will be better off for it.
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