No couple ever wants their actions to negatively affect their children, but most understand that divorce will have some sort of impact on their offspring, regardless of age. Often, telling your children about your upcoming separation or divorce is the toughest part of the whole scenario. You don’t want your children to feel hurt, angry, abandoned, or any of the other feelings that often come with such an announcement.
It helps, however, to have an idea of how your child may react, and a lot of those reactions will – of course – depend on the age of the child(ren). If you as a parent know what to expect, you can better prepare for the conversation and the reactions that follow.
Preschool-aged children and younger
Obviously, very, very young children (i.e., under 2 years-old) may be confused about the changes that come with a divorce or separation though it’s not likely you can have a full-out conversation about it and think that they will understand. However, as they get a little older (3-5 years-old, perhaps), you should be able to present them with this challenging information and expect a reaction.
What’s typical? Well, many younger children will more or less “deny” the information they are hearing. Little ones might listen and then walk away, content on deciding that they really didn’t hear what you just said to them. Others will promptly change the subject. Both of these actions are defense mechanisms regularly employed by young children. However, this behavior does not mean that they child is “okay” and that there’s no need to talk further.
What you might notice after this initial reaction is some unprovoked crying now and then, but what you’ll observe even more often is your young child acting out their sadness, anger, or frustration through their play. Look for themes of coming and going during play (i.e., teddy bear goes away and isn’t coming back) or notice how your child’s dolls or stuffed animals are yelling at each other or otherwise mirroring behavior that might be happening at your house.
It’s okay! This is how your child will process his/her feelings. To help, you might consider reading together books that are focused on divorce and are written specifically for little ones,like My Family’s Changing by Pat Thomas or Two Homes by Claire Masurel.
Children in grades 1 to 6 (and maybe a bit older) will have a much stronger, outright reaction to news of a divorce. It’s not unusual for the first response from them to be crying, yelling, or self-isolating in their room. They will likely have a lot of questions for you and they’ll want answers NOW, even if you haven’t yet worked everything out amongst the two of you.
Often, they’ll inquire as to who asked for the divorce so that they can have one particular person to blame for the break-up. Be prepared for this if you have a child this age, keep a united front, and resist placing blame on one another.
Children this age are also going to be very concerned about what will happen to THEM. Will they have to move? Will one parent leave? Must they live in two different places? These worries are very common and, again, you should prepare answers before telling your children about your impending divorce.
As if typical with adolescents regarding any kind of traumatic situation, you’ll likely get the most extreme reaction from these fragile beings. Intense anger or deep sadness and depression can be expected amongst teens and tweens and you’ll both likely be called horrible names as well. They will tell you how selfish you are and how your plans to separate will ruin their life.
Some may try to pretend the action means nothing to them. “Whatever!” is a favorite term thrown about by adolescents and you might hear that from the mouth of your teen. But don’t let it fool you! They certainly feel something about what’s happening, even if they are trying to be cavalier about the whole thing. So, keep an eye on them as the reaction will surface at some time or another and you’ll need to deal with it.
Just because your child has passed the age of 18, it doesn’t really mean they’ll handle your divorce any better than your 13-year-old. They just might outwardly react quite differently. You won’t likely get the yelling and crying or the seeming disinterest in your break-up but they’ll definitely be concerned.
It may be that they’ll be worried about more “adult” matters, such as whether a particular parent can emotionally handle the divorce, whether they’ll be able to stay in college if financial issues occur, and whether things will be different when they come home for breaks or at semester’s end. They’ll likely take on an unsettled feeling in general and will lament the good-old-days when things were normal.
Be ready to help
Every child, regardless of their age, will be affected by their parent’s divorce, though the ways in which that will happen may be vastly different. It’s important to remain emotionally available to your child(ren) throughout this time, to maintain as cordial a relationship as possible with your soon-to-be ex, and to recognize when your child needs more help than you can provide.
Many children whose parents are going through a divorce or separation can benefit from the help of a counselor trained in dealing with kids in this often-difficult situation. A therapist can help draw out feelings that children may find difficult to share with their parents and can offer strategies for managing those feelings. Sometimes just a few sessions will help. At times, more are needed.
For more information about how Dr. Ellie Bolgar and her associates can help you and your children through divorce, call us at 604-371-0198 to schedule an appointment.