You’re already heading down the right path
Research shows that having a discussion with your child about your divorce helps put him or her on a path toward the best possible outcome, so you’re off to a great start.
“If these discussions are done poorly or don’t happen at all, the child is left to figure everything out on his own. Being left in the dark with a problem that is too big to understand increases a child’s anxiety profoundly.” (Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee, 2000)
This is one of the most important talks you’ll ever have with your child, and you want to get it right. We’ve been there!
Did you know that parents control the three biggest factors that affect a child’s wellbeing during a divorce?: Having a strong relationship with both parents, effective parenting (both warmth and discipline) and minimal exposure to conflict. Learn more.
A note or two (ok, three)
Bear’s Changing Family is not intended to be a substitute for “the talk.” We recommend beginning with a family discussion about your divorce followed by a reading of your child’s Bear’s Changing Family. Then, if you included one in your order, present the stuffed bear, a little friend to help him or her throughout this big change.
While we provided quite a bit of information to help you prepare, experts recommend keeping it simple, straight-forward and honest for your very young audience. And of course, the discussion with a 3-year-old should be much simpler than the discussion with an 8-year-old.
These are tips we have found helpful, but we encourage you to search the wealth of information out there such as age-specific guidance (think cognitive ability, coping skills, egocentric nature, attention span, etc.). Every family and child is different, and you know best what will help ease your little one’s worries and fears.
What we know
Over 75% of divorcing parents talk to their children about this change in the family for less than ten minutes – total. Bear’s Changing Family can help you be in the top 25%. Very little research is available on divorce disclosure, especially for such a young audience, but we do know that it is a transformative and memorable experience for older children that affects their immediate and long-term reactions to divorce. So how do we make it the best it can be?
Understanding your young audience
- A child as young as 3-8 may not be aware of or understand discord in your relationship.
- Give extra thought to how you might explain why you are divorcing. A good rule of thumb when considering phrasing is to put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you say you “fell out of love” with each other, a young child may worry that you could do the same with them. It’s important that they know parent love is different than parent/child love. Parents don’t stop loving their children or get divorced from them.
- As one expert put it, “…young school-age children may worry about consequences of the divorce which you won’t even consider, such as where their pet goldfish will live. They need reassurance that their basic needs will be met and that their care, though different, won’t change. Allow them to express these concerns and help them to find solutions to these new ‘problems’ that everyone finds acceptable.”
The difference age makes
Preschoolers need simple, concrete explanations. Stick to the basics: which parent will be moving out, where the child will live, who will look after him and how often he’ll see the other parent. Be prepared for questions, provide short answers, then wait to see if there are more. Don’t expect one conversation to do the job. Plan on several short talks.
With school-age children, stable care and routines are still important. Approaching the topic indirectly can help, saying, “Some kids feel sad, afraid or even angry when their parents divorce,” is less threatening than asking directly, “Are you feeling sad?” Books about divorce can also help kids focus on their feelings. (Source)
Some helpful do’s and don’ts
- Choose a time for the talk when you won’t feel rushed.
- Write out the major points you wish to cover.
- Talk with your child before any changes in the living arrangements occur, typically a few days to one week prior depending on your child’s age.
- Have the talk in a comfortable setting, preferably in the home.
- Bear in mind the short attention span of very young children.
- Present a united front by telling your child together.
- Give your child the benefit of an honest, but child-friendly, explanation.
- Don’t share more information than your child is asking for. Your child will ask why you are getting a divorce, but long-winded reasons may only confuse them. Keep it simple and straight-forward.
- Don’t apologize for the decision. Explain that you both did your best to save the marriage and that the decision to live apart was made by both people.
- Be mindful not to blame or disparage the other parent. Be as supportive as possible of your child’s relationship with the other parent.
“If they are able to see their parents’ working together, they are likely to have fewer fears about the future or worries that they will be forced to choose sides (Goldstein & Solnit, 1984).”
Realistic, yet hopeful
At no point do we ever want to minimize the potential negative effects divorce can have on children. Divorce is complicated and emotional, and it’s not easy to navigate especially in these delicate early days. But we firmly believe, and research proves, the powerful positive effect that we, as parents, can have in reducing negative outcomes and promoting children’s resilience. You can learn more here. Also, we understand that some of this is easier said than done, like having the talk with your child together and co-parenting with someone you may be in turmoil with. As a parent, we all know that when it comes to the big stuff, the easy thing to do and the right thing to do aren’t always the same. It gets easier.