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A divorce can shake a child’s world view. But as a parent, you have the ability to help keep your child grounded and well-adjusted after a divorce. The way in which you approach your child on how they are copying should be different, however, based on their age. Throughout the developmental process, a child’s perception of the world and the factors that affect their own world changes. Here’s a guide to approaching a child’s divorce at each developmental stage.
California Psychologist John B. Kelly shines a light on the different developmental stages of a child’s life and the key developmental issues parents must face when helping their child both understand, accept, and overcome the complexities of divorce.
Babies & Toddlers:
Kelly points out what emotional symptoms to watch out for in preschoolers that may be signs of emotional distress following divorce. Preschoolers who express fear, anger or emotional instability (clinginess, anxiety, whininess or general instability), and lack of sleep may be having trouble handling a divorce.
Kelly points out the parental priorities of parents who have recently divorced – particularly parents of toddlers and preschoolers. According to Kelly, toddlers and preschoolers require consistent care and nurturing, which gives them a sense of reassurance. Their lives “need to be anchored by the normal routines (meals, play, bath, bed) in the presence of a parent who is ‘there for them’”. This is always important for children, but especially after a divorce. Kelly notes, “‘If things aren’t going well at home, preteens and teenagers can escape by going to hang out with friends. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers can’t’”.
She also notes that preschoolers need “‘simple, concrete explanations.’” She advises parents to stick to the basics, describing who will be moving out, where the child will live, who will look after them and how often they will see each parent. She also advises to be prepared for questions and to provide short, concise answers. One conversation won’t do the job, though, according to Kelly. There may be several short talks.
6-8 year olds:
9-11 year olds:
School-aged children may show distress in the form of fear, anxiety, anger, or sadness, according to Kelly. They may also display more clear-cut signs that they are missing one of their parents. Some may even wonder what they can do to reconcile the relationship between their parents. This is something to watch out for. They may blame themselves for the divorce, not understanding that this was an adult decision and that their actions didn’t play a part in the divorce. Children who fantasize about a reconciliation or conjure up ways to help their parents reconcile may have more difficulty with the process of healing and healthily adjusting post-divorce.
Kelly points out that at this age, parents do have some different priorities. Routine and stable care is still very important. Although older kids in this age range have more of an ability to understand how they are feeling and express said feelings does not mean that they will. If you feel your child in this age group is distressed, but won’t speak about it, it may be up to you to open the dialogue. Kelly recommends asking about their feelings indirectly as opposed to directly. Asking a direct question, such as “Are you sad?” can come off as threatening. An indirect statement to open up dialogue, such as, “Some kids feel angry, sad, or afraid after their parents get divorced”, is less threatening. Kelly also recommends books about divorce for children. It can help them understand their feelings and cope with them.
12-14 year olds:
With 12-14 year olds, Kelly recommends watching out for irritability and anger – both common – aimed at either parents. With a young teen, it can be difficult to gauge whether or not their moodiness is an effect of divorce. Think about how they were before the separation and how they are acting after. This may give you insight as to whether or not their moodiness is in fact a result of the divorce.
With young teens, it’s important to keep communication open so emotional problems don’t go unnoticed. They can be difficult to reach, and sometimes even act as if they don’t want to be reached out to. But most still crave connection, in some way, with their parents. So, even if they push back, keep trying if you feel they may be distressed over the divorce. If you are going to talk about it, make sure you meet them half way. Bring in topics of discussion that they want to talk about. Again, this can be a difficult age group to reach. So it’s important to let them feel that their voice matters and that you are truly interested.
Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide For Changing Families by Laurene Krasny Brown and Mark Brown (Ages 4-8)
I Don’t Want To Talk About It by Jeanie Franz Ransom (Ages 4-8)
My Mom and Dad Don’t Live Together Anymore: A Drawing Book For Children Of Separated or Divorced Parents by Judith Aron Rubin (Ages 4-12)
What Can I Do? A Book for Children of Divorce by Danielle Lowry (Ages 8-12)