When couples divorce, emotions run wild and minds are preoccupied with many questions. Where will I live? How will I manage my finances? Who will keep what? How will we parent our children? How will I be able to cope with this chaos? Etc. Sometimes, as a parent, you are not aware of the questions your children have on their minds. You may need so much energy to cope with the changes you are going through, both emotional and material, that you may forget to explain to your children what is going to change for them and how this might make them feel.
As a newly divorced parent, you may simply not be able to foresee what is going to change for your child (and yourself) yet. Sometimes parents have the misperception that the child will not understand if they try to explain what is going on. Truth is that children can understand more than you think if you talk to them in developmentally appropriate language.
Children can feel alone and confused if they don’t get answers and misperceptions are not corrected. Young children don’t have the mental capacity or the language skills yet to express what is going on in their heads. Often, emotions and confusion are expressed in crying, disobedient, withdrawn, clinging or hyperactive behavior. Older children may verbalize these questions or they may keep quiet because they don’t want to bother their already stressed out parents. Some children will not find a listening ear…
If parents don’t know which questions children ask themselves, they most likely won’t answer these questions. Understanding what preoccupies little minds can help parents explain and answer their questions, even if they are not expressed verbally. Doing this can bring clarity and reduce anxiety in a time of emotional turmoil. Answering important questions in a developmentally appropriate way will help children adjust better during and after the divorce.
Below are questions children may ask themselves during and after divorce and suggestions on how to answer them:
1. My parents stopped loving each other. Could one day my mom or my dad stop loving me as well? It is very important that children hear that, even though their parents don’t love each other anymore, they never stop loving them. Even if they live in separate houses, they need to assure their child that their parental love has not changed. Remember that showing love in actions (spending quality time with the child) is more important than showing it in buying presents and material things.
2. What will change after the divorce? Will we move? Will I have to change schools? Young children need regular schedules and predictable routines to make them feel safe. Try to prevent changes when possible. Changing routines, schools and moving can cause confusion and distress. If moving or changing schools cannot be avoided, prepare your child and involve your child in the process. For example, let the child decorate his or her new room and visit the new school with the child in advance.
3. My dad left my mom and me when my parents separated. Will one day my mom leave me as well? Children need to hear that, even though Mom and Dad don’t live in the same house anymore, they both will stay unconditionally committed to them.
4. I want to play with my favorite doll but it is at my dad’s house. When will I see it again? Divorce itself creates a temporary unsafe environment because the family unit falls apart. For young children, a favorite toy or a favorite blanket can create safety. As parents, be aware how important these items are for children. To avoid extra stress on the child, don’t be rigid in dividing clothes, toys, and other personal belongings between the two houses.
5. Will I keep seeing my grandparents, aunts and uncles from both sides after the divorce? Grandparents and extended family are important parts of children’s lives. In order to form their unique identity, children need to know where they are coming from. Make sure your child is able to establish and keep their relationship with their extended family from both sides.
6. Will my mom be sad when I visit my dad? Children are loyal to their parents and worries about the parent they leave behind are common. Give your child permission to have a good time with the other parent. Tell your child that, although you will miss the child, you will be fine. The child should not have to worry about you; it is hard enough as it is.
7. When will I see my dad? Young children don’t have a good sense of time yet. Make it visual to the child when he or she will be with each parent. For example, draw hearts for the amount of days the child is with one parent, and let the child paint or stick stickers on one heart every day. Sticking a photo of the corresponding parent on the hearts will make it even more visual by showing the child how many days will pass before seeing the other parent again.
8. Will my parents get back together? Most children (of any age) have reunification fantasies about their parents. Be clear and don’t feed the child’s hope that you will get back together.
9. It makes me sad and scared to hear my parents argue all the time. When will my parents stop fighting? Research shows that ongoing parental conflicts increases children’s risk of ongoing psychological and social problems. Even though it is hard at times, don’t speak negatively about the other parent or his extended family to the child or to others when the child can hear you. Keep in mind that, even if you think the child can’t hear you, he or she may be listening. Even if you have to fake it, act respectfully around the other parent. Remember that you are a role model for your child. Your child learns about relationships, social skills, and problem solving by watching you.
10. Is it my fault that my parents divorced? Children often think it is their fault that their parents are separated. They may think their behavior caused it and feel guilty. It is very important to reassure your child that it is not his or her fault. Explain that separation is your choice. You and the other parent didn’t get along, and both parents think this is better for all of you.
To help your child adjust to divorce, reading children’s book Nina Has Two Houses is highly recommended. This book helps young children of divorce adjust to the new situation. The book shows how Nina struggles with emotions of sadness, separation anxiety, anger, and guilt caused by the separation. It shows the ambivalence of Nina toward the parent she is visiting and the parent she has to leave behind. These are feelings that most children experience while going through a divorce, and most children in this situation will identify with Nina. It shows the advantages and the disadvantages of having two houses. Nina Has Two Houses is available on Amazon in English and Spanish.