An age-by-age guide to what your children should know
Whether it is an abrupt end or a slowly devolving relationship that has finally run its course, navigating divorce is fraught with challenges. Details of a separation will need to be defined while feelings between you and your soon-to-be-former partner might be running high.
That moment when you realize you have to let your children know that things are going to change in their lives will stir additional emotional pain. Worrying about what such news will do for their well-being is a natural mothering response. It is widely known that the breakup of a family can have a long-lasting impact on children of all ages, especially if they find out in an inappropriate manner or the split is nasty.
In an article released by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers called “Helping Parents Tell Their Children About Separation and Divorce,” the authors explain that talking to your children about divorce is necessary because adjustments that will need to be made in your family will continue throughout your children’s growth milestones.
As you are navigating the change, Solo Mom, your children are alongside you with their own set of stressors that they will have to navigate, both logistically and emotionally. Unfortunately, you cannot completely protect them from whatever emotional effects the divorce might have on your children as they grow. Beyond general tips on how to break the news, such as picking an appropriate time and telling them it’s not their fault, below are some other ways in which you can begin to support them throughout your divorce by tailoring your initial discussion with them based on their age.
For children aged five to 10
Tell them only when the decision to split is final. First and foremost with children in this age range, do not tell them you are getting a divorce unless you and your partner’s choice for separating is final. The uncertainty can lead to a lot of anxiety and stress for kids this age.
Manage your emotions. Psychotherapist Vikki Stark, author of Divorce Talk: How to Tell the Kids (Green Light Press, 2015), believes that you need to manage your emotions so as not to traumatize your children with your own emotional burdens of the loss. They will have their own emotions for which you will need to be present and help them navigate.
Keep your language simple. Children as young as five might already know what the term “divorce” means from conversations or their friends at school. You might choose to use the word or not, but it’s important to keep your language simple and do so as if you are telling them a story. Also, give them the basic reason, so they can begin to understand that there was a cause and effect. For example, “Mommy and Daddy were not getting along, so we decided that Daddy should live someplace else and we won’t be together anymore. This is not your fault, and we both love you. You will live here and get to visit your daddy.”
Affirm that the parent who won’t be living with them loves them. If it is a situation in which you are unsure of whether or not your children will see the other parent regularly, affirm that he or she loves them.
Wait until school break to move. If it is a situation in which the children have to move, Stark suggests to wait until a school break, if possible, so that you are not adding the stress of a move to the news of the divorce.
Tell them it is not their fault, and affirm the love that you have for them. Let me repeat that, as this point cannot be stressed enough: tell them it is not their fault, and affirm the love that you have for them.
Wait and listen. Wait and listen some more. At this stage of development, children will overhear information or ask their friends questions. Be prepared for questions after the fact, even the same question over and over again. Listen to how they feel, and affirm their feelings on the matter. Books can help! For younger children (aged five to eight), read Dinosaurs Divorce (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1988); for a child who is a little older, read What in the World Do You Do When Your Parents Divorce? A Survival Guide for Kids (Free Spirit Publishing, 2001); and for two moms who are splitting, Saturday is Pattyday (New Victoria Publishers, 1993) can be of help.
For children aged 11 to 15
Realize children in this age range are much more aware of what is happening at home. You might not have been able to hide the stresses and the faults in your relationship. As children get older, you might find yourself wanting to share more information than you intended. Add social media to the mix, and the boundaries can begin to blur because your children are online as well.
Tell them only when the decision to split is final. Even if your children are aware that there are problems in your relationship, wait to tell them until the decision to split is final.
Do not share inappropriate information with your children. Inappropriate information includes adultery or infidelity by either party and any financial issues that might occur as a result of the divorce. I know some Solo Moms feel that honesty is the best policy. The trick is that you want to focus on your children’s feelings on the matter and not have your children be overly concerned with your feelings. It is not their job to help you heal. It is not healthy for them. If anything, let them guide what it is that they want to know and share factual information with them, and ask them how they feel.
Avoid blaming the other parent (even if the split is the result of the other parent’s actions). For example, in an extreme case, you might want to avoid saying, “Your father cheated on me, so we are getting a divorce.” Children might feel like you are asking them to choose or take sides on the matter.
Tell them it is not their fault, and affirm the love that you have for them. This bears repeating for children in this age range as well as for those in the other age ranges.
Be as clear and consistent as you can about what might happen in the future. Is there a move involved? Will there be different living arrangements for them? Avoid making promises for yourself or your partner that you might not be able to keep. If your children know what to expect, and it comes to pass, it will relieve some of their anxiety.
Use your community. If you have divorced friends with children who are the same age as yours, when you are ready, plan an outing with them—not to discuss the intimate details of your divorce but to give your children an opportunity to see how other children are coping. They might talk to them and ask questions. Peer-to-peer communication is helpful.
For children aged 16 to 20
Everything described above applies to children who are in this age range. Additionally, children at this point in adolescence (teenagers!!) are very focused on themselves and their future. They are getting ready to graduate from high school, heading off to college or preparing for their first important job interview. The news of the divorce will most likely add additional stress and overload their system.
Avoid dropping the news of the divorce like a bomb. Even if your children are aware that there are problems in your relationship, give them the same care and treatment that you would if they were five years old.
Contextualize the story of your choice to divorce. Because your children are older, you can acknowledge anything of which you know they are already aware. For example, if your partner has not slept at home for the last month, do not insult your children’s intelligence by avoiding that fact. Again, be concise and avoid tawdry details.
Be aware of their reaction. They might feel overly responsible to help you “fix” the situation. It is not their job to help you heal. Keep your parental boundaries intact.
Allow them to express and validate their feelings (even if you do not like how they are expressing them). They might curse, sob, and blame you both for ruining their lives. Stay calm. They need you to be their calm in this emotional storm.
Tell them that it is not their fault and that you love them. Make sure you tell them this even if you have to do it through a closed bedroom door.
For children aged 21 and older
According a 2014 report by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, people aged 50 and above are twice as likely to go through a divorce. Adult children of divorce have a stronger reaction to the ending of their parents’ relationship than any other age group. You might be surprised, but all of the above applies to your adult children, with an added focus on these few things:
Keep your parental boundaries. Even though your adult children might have more of an adult understanding of what goes on in a relationship, keep your parental boundaries. They do not know the inner workings your relationship. Once again, be clear and concise, and save them the gory details!
Expect a stronger grieving process from your children. Your split most likely will evoke in them the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance—even if they know the relationship was not going well. Change of this magnitude is hard. Listen, acknowledge, and validate their feelings.
Be prepared for a lot of questions about their childhood. Many children of adult divorce often feel betrayed or guilty. Be gentle with yourself and breathe.
Tell them that it is not their fault. Give them guidance and love, and affirm the adults they have become.
You have reached this point, and it is tough emotional work that will continue to unfold. Remember there is no perfect way to break this news. If necessary, find additional support by talking to others or finding a trained therapist.
Tanisha Christie is an interdisciplinary performing artist and filmmaker. After years of working at the nexus of arts, media, social justice, and healing, she is currently finishing her master of social work (clinical specialization) at Hunter College in New York City. A child of a Solo Mom, she loves to ride her bike to the beach.
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