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How to Tell Your Children About Divorce

While going through a divorce is complex and stressful for most people, divorcing parents experience the added stress of having to share the news with their children and shelter them throughout the process. In addition, children will take the news and grasp the concept of divorce very differently depending on their age and emotional development. Understanding children's developmental levels is one of the most important things parents can do to help their children adjust to the reality of divorce.

Babies and toddlers up to 2 years of age are physically and emotionally very dependent on their parents and caregivers. They don't have any ability to understand the concept of divorce and how it will affect them personally in the short and long term. Preschoolers (age 3 to 5) are still very dependent on their parents and caregivers and have limited ability to understand complex issues like divorce and it long term consequences. It is important to make children understand that the divorce is a decision their adult parents made and it has nothing to do with them or their behavior. Parents should focus on the basic facts: who will be moving out, who the children will live with, and how often they will see the other parent. Children that age are very self-centered and are not always able to understand and express their feelings. The news of divorce may make them feel anxious, irritable, and more clingy. Stability is very important to help them cope, including dependable care giving, consistent daily routines, and extra nurturing.

School age children (6 to 12 years old) are more able to understand and share their own feelings. While they are still somewhat self-centered, they will appreciate parents being honest about the future of the family dynamics. Children that age are starting to develop relationships outside of the home with friends, teachers and coaches, where they can seek additional emotional support. Some children that age can become anxious, fearful or even angry at one or both parents. A few children even believe their parents can get back together and will try to find ways to make reconciliation happen. A divorce is still a stressful experience for these children. Therefore, consistent care and daily routines continue to be very important for that age group.

Teenagers usually have a much greater capacity to understand the complex issues surrounding divorce. It is best to involve them in family discussions and encourage them to ask questions so they can understand the situation better and gain more control. Relationships outside the home are very important for teenagers and they can provide that extra emotional support they may feel they can't get at home. Teenagers can be moody, but those who struggle with their parents' divorce will often show signs of anxiety, anger, or irritability. Parents need to remember that even though teenagers may not always say it, they still crave that deep connection with their parents, and even more during these difficult times.

No matter the age of the children, it is important for parents to understand that divorce is a huge disruption to their children's everyday life and may cause mental and emotional development to slow down, or even regress. It helps to tell teachers and caregivers the news before telling the children, but parents must request teachers not to discuss it with the children unless they mention it and want to talk about it. Overall, the best way to help children adjust after divorce is to encourage them to develop a strong relationship with both parents whenever possible, and to minimize conflict between parents, including after the divorce is finalized.

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