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How You Can Talk To Your Child About Divorce

No one entering a marriage expects it to fail. Yet, that’s the case for about 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States. Even if it’s for the best interest of both parties, divorce can be a challenging and traumatic experience. And, if you feel that way, just imagine how your children are handling the situation.

Research has found that children from divorced homes suffer academically and experience psychological distress. Children may also be affected physically. One study found that “children from divorced homes experience illness more frequently and recover from sickness more slowly,” while another shows that children can gain weight. Other research reports that substance abuse and behavior problems are also common among children from divorced homes.

This doesn’t mean that any of this will happen to your child. But, there’s no denying that your divorce is going to impact them. The good news is that children are resilient and can bounce back. But, talking to your kid(s) before, during, and following your divorce is essential in helping them cope.

Of course, having this conversation with your children can be just as frightening as the divorce itself, here are some pointers to make it just a little bit easier.

Timing is everything.

In the middle of an argument, you may have blurted out that you want a separation or divorce. That’s different than actually making the decision to end a marriage though. So, don’t mention anything to your children until you and your spouse are positive that you’re separating. You don’t want to confuse or upset your children if it isn’t necessary.

Address the entire family.

“If possible talk to children together as a couple, with both parents prepared to work as a team, and convey unified caring and concern — try to prepare to do this when you are unlikely to lose temper, or become angry with each other, “ writes Lisa Herrick, PhD.

Also, avoid the temptation to tell your oldest child first. “The strategy seems unwise because older children then bear the burden of keeping secrets,” notes Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D. “And, the youngest child hears a ‘you can't handle problems" message.’”

Additionally, make sure that you keep the conversation clear, simple, and fitted to your child’s age.

Leave out the messy details.

Sometimes a divorce is amicable. But, there are times when it’s not due to factors like an extramarital affair or financial problems. It’s understandable that you’re hurt and anger. But, to your child, that’s still their mom or dad. And, it’s not fair to them to drag them into this or force them to pick a side.

In short, avoid the blame game and space them the details. And, please never make your child a spy.

Let them know that they’re safe.

“Children usually focus on whether they will remain secure and safe. Many children wonder how the divorce will change their day­to­day lives. Other major concerns may remain unspoken. Encourage children to be honest about their emotions and legitimize whatever they are feeling. Most children worry about whether they were responsible for the dissolution of their parents' marriage, but few find the nerve to ask directly.

Asked and unspoken questions should be addressed:

  • Was this my fault?

  • Could I have done anything to make you stick together?

  • How about now? If I promise to behave, will that make you get back together?

  • Will you still love me, even if you don't live with me?

  • How often will I get to see you?

  • Do I have to move?

  • Do I have to change schools?

  • Will we have enough money?

The keys to answering these questions are clarity, honesty, and reassurance that they will remain safe and loved.”

While divorce can disrupt routines because of new living and custody arrangements, try to keep your child’s daily routine as consistent as possible. For example, try to maintain a regular meal and bedtime schedule. If they take the bus to school, make sure that they keep taking that same bus to school daily. And, encourage them to keep up extracurricular activities.

Be on the lookout for unusual behavior.

Even if the divorce is going as smoothly as possible, it’s still a scary adjustment for your kids. As such, they may exhibit a change in behavior like anger, sadness, resentment, clinginess, or regression.

Please don’t ignore these signs. Keep the conversation going and assure them they’re safe and loved by both parents.

Get help.

No matter how tough and independent you are, this is not the time to do this on your own. Turn to your support system like friends and family, join a support group, and work with a mental health professional to help both you and your children cope with this difficult situation.

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