10 Simple Tips to Talk Divorce With Young Children
As a private mediator, one of the biggest mistakes I see is that parents don't talk to toddlers and young children about divorce. It's a common misconception that little ones can't understand these concepts. They can, and if you directly address the changes with these tips, they will.
Five Tips for Talking Divorce With Young Tots1. DO NOT ... assume that a toddler or young child can’t understand you simply because their own language is not fully developed. Children are able to comprehend much more that they can communicate. Even babies can understand tone and feeling. Don’t let a child’s young age keep you from talking about the separation.
2. DO ... Create with your spouse a “mutual story” to explain why you are separating. This story should be neutral and not blame either parent. Try framing the story in a manner that your child understands, i.e., "Mom and dad would like to be happy and healthy so that we can raise you to be happy and healthy, and the only way we can do that is by living in separate houses," or, "It's our job to keep you safe. Since we are fighting so much, the best way for us to keep you safe is for us to live in separate houses."
3. DO NOT ... Forget to tell the child that is not their fault. Young children (bless them) are the center of their own world, and may believe they caused the separation. Along these lines, also tell your child that there is nothing he or she can do to change the situation, so that he or she does not take on that responsibility. Preschool or young school age children also may need to be told that parents divorce each other, but they never divorce their children.
4. DO .... Emphasize all the things that will remain the same in their lives (we'll still love you more than anything, you’ll still go to the same music class, see mommy and daddy all the time, keep all your friends and all your toys, etc). And highlight any exciting changes (you'll be able to have a kitten with mommy, or pick out new toys with daddy).
5. DO NOT ... Discuss anything that is out in the future. Young children are very immediate and don’t need to know if something is happening months from now. Keep plans to move, sell a home, or go back to work, private until they are immediate changes.
6. DO ... Begin to put together photo albums so that your child will have pictures of family members in each home. Young children connect visually. They are comforted and entertained by pictures of their family and themselves. Also, swap phones with your soon-to-be former spouse, and record a few videos for your child. This way, they'll always have a video of you within reach. Even if it pains you very much to see photos and videos of your former partner, it's one of the greatest comforts you can provide your young child.
...And Five More7. DO NOT ... Be afraid to acknowledge your sad feelings, or theirs. It’s okay to tell a child that you are also sad / worried /anxious about these changes. It is authentic, gives them permission to show their own feelings, and provides a good opportunity for you to model appropriate coping skills by saying, “and this is what I do to feel better when I am sad/ worried/ anxious…” Next you can ask, "what do you do?"
8. DO ... Emphasize to your child that it is your job to keep them safe and happy, and that throughout these changes, you will do the best job you can. Check in with them to see how they're doing, even when they seem okay. Tell them that they are the greatest gift your spouse could have ever given you. And tell them that again.
9. DO NOT ... Introduce a significant other into the child’s life at this early point no matter what the circumstances. The child is already experiencing a period of transition, and possibly grieving, as well. The introduction of a new sexual partner can be confusing and destablizing to a child, who may worry that their other parent is being replaced, or be puzzled by romantic behaviors. Refrain from introducing your boo even as a "friend." Young children are highly perceptive. Seeing a disconnect between what you are saying and what you are doing can cause them concern and anxiety.
10. Do....Provide opportunities for discussion. Create a bedtime ritual where you share the biggest worry and the biggest happiness of the day, or have a special place to sit together when your child is showing big feelings. Even if a child is pre-verbal, they will get accustomed to the rituals of safely sharing information with you, and as they begin to talk and participate, they'll love the tradition. If nothing else, find a time where you can sit down next to your child while they play, joining in if you are asked to. This might provide an opportunity for your tot to open up, but even if it doesn't, you are showing the type of interest and engagement that builds their bond with you, and this fosters future heart-to-heart discussions.
Thanks for reading! Share your top tips for talking divorce with tots with us at https://www.facebook.com/divorceably/ and learn more about Erika Anne Englund, cooperative divorce attorney and trained private mediator, at www.divorceably.com