Communication with young children about divorce is important

Young children benefit from reassurance when mom and dad get a divorce.

Divorce is often painful and difficult for adults and even more so for children. For children ages, 6-12 keeping communication going can be challenging when adults are going through their own stressful process of grief and pain. Divorce also creates stress for children because of loss and change, as well. Children in this age group will need caring, supportive parents to help them understand, name and navigate their feelings, which can include sadness, anger, confusion, anxiety, fear and guilt among others.

When possible, parents should communicate with their children about the divorce together. Children will benefit from “kid level” explanations about what is happening. Most often, children will need lots of reinforcement that everything is going to work out fine and that they will emerge on the other side of this with both of their parents in their life. Children also need to hear that they are loved by both parents – over and over again and as often as it takes to make a child feel reassured of the love of both their mother and father. One of the healthiest things parents can do for their children is to ensure them of the integrity of their family across the two homes. When adults split-up it does not have to mean that children have to be broken or that their families no longer function for their benefit. When divorcing parents spend time reassuring their children of their love and commitment helps keep children feeling secure.

The talk that parents have with children should not include oversharing the adult story or include details about the legal proceedings. Legal or “court language”, such as “custody,” “parenting time,” and “visitation” should be avoided when talking with children. These words can add more fear and confusion to an already scary situation for them. Instead of using legal terms, parents should use child friendly language, which means replacing the word “custody’ with “responsibility” and the word “visitation” with “living with.” Children do not “visit” their parents, they live with them.

Another important component of the talk parents have with children about their divorce is that the divorce is not their fault and that they in no way contributed to it happening. They also need to know that there is nothing they can do to fix it and that this is an adult issue that two adults will handle. Many children will feel guilty about their parent’s divorce for no logical reason. Young children are still very egocentric and believe that they are responsible for the good, as well as the bad things that happen in their worlds. Another reason young children feel guilty about divorce is that they don’t understand causality very well and that, mixed with the fact that they have very little rational thinking or judgement available to them will cause them to draw conclusions that are not grounded in logic.

More than anything, parents need to keep open communication on-going with their children throughout the divorce process and beyond. Feelings and problems should be discussed openly and whenever children need reassurance. Parents should always be in the roll of supporter – emotionally and socially. Children should never reverse roles with their parents or act as a caregiver, friend or confidant to their parents. This will ensure healthy boundaries in other relationships the child will encounter now and throughout the rest of their lives.

Parents that make communication with their children about the divorce are committed to maintaining the social and emotional wellbeing of their children. Communication is a key tool parents can use to minimize the pain and suffering children may feel during the adjustment period. Talking to children about divorce can be overwhelming and heart-wrenching, but it must be done and when a few guidelines for communication between parents and children are followed, the outcome is more likely to be positive for everyone involved.

For more information on co-parenting after divorce, please contact Lisa Tams at 734-772-7236 or visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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