Divorce is never easy. When you have children, questions of child support and child custody can make the process more difficult – and your children’s fears and worries can take center stage in their young minds.
According to a study published in Paediatrics and Child Health, children may experience anxiety and depression during the divorce process. If their emotional needs are addressed, however, most children adjust completely to their new living situations in about two years.
As a parent, you can do much to help your children manage their fears and navigate a divorce in a healthy way.
Here are tips on caring for your children’s emotional needs during the divorce process.
Keep Age Differences in Mind
Children express, understand and process their emotions differently at different ages. Understanding what your child needs at each age helps you provide for those needs.
Preschool (ages 0-5)
Young children are just learning to process strong emotions. Often, when faced with an emotional question they can’t tackle, they will change the subject or leave the conversation. These children use play to work out their emotions. By making their cars, dolls or stuffed animals act out scenes of arguing, fighting or leaving, they gain a sense of control over their emotions.
Schoolchildren (ages 6-12)
School-age children will often become sad and cry or get angry and yell. They often process information in small batches; for instance, they may ask a few questions, stomp away and cry, then come back and ask a few more. They are likely to worry about what will happen to them.
Adolescents (ages 13-18)
Teenagers tend to have all-or-nothing reactions to the news of their parents’ divorce. They may become intensely angry and sad, or they may show no reaction at all. Angry teens may try to make their parents feel guilty or insist that the divorce is unfair to them. Silent teens, however, are feeling the same emotions; they simply take longer to dwell on them before acting out.
Regardless of their age, all children need reassurance from their parents that they are still loved, that the divorce is not their fault and that their needs will be met. Parents who can agree to present a united front to their children – to settle on an explanation of the divorce for the children, to refrain from arguing in front of the kids and to agree on major parenting issues – provide vital stability for their kids and a safe space away from their own conflicts.
When reassuring children, tailor your presentation of the message to their age needs:
Often, young children want only a simple explanation that makes it clear that their needs will be met. Give young children the space to use their play to sort out their feelings. Drawing, dancing, singing and games can also be valuable sources of reassurance.
These children need concrete answers to their fears about what will happen to them, where they will live and whether their parents still love them. A predictable schedule can do much to reassure children that their world is not falling apart.
Adolescents may lash out, even when seeking advice, reassurance or answers to their questions. Patience and a willingness to talk to them whenever they are ready can help them feel safe and understand the situation.
Offer Honesty – and Encourage It
At all ages, children should be encouraged to share their feelings honestly – even if their feelings are confused, conflicting or negative toward one or both parents.
Parents should also attempt to be honest with children whenever possible. An honest “I don’t know” or “We’re still figuring that out” in response to questions about where each parent will live and how often the child will see each parent are often preferable to vague reassurances that “Everything will be fine.”
When encouraging and offering honest communication, however, parents should never take sides with children or speak ill of the child’s other parent. Remember that your child’s relationship with his or her other parent is separate from your relationship with the other parent. Encourage children to love and respect both their parents and to keep building the kind of relationship they want with each of you.