Talking about divorce with kids – an age-by-age guide
Sitting down with your children to tell them you’re getting a divorce is one of the hardest conversations you’ll ever have.
Be prepared for questions like “who will look after me?” or “where will the cat live?” Knowing where children are at developmentally can help how you might frame the discussion.
0 to 5 years – babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers
This age group is completely dependent on their parents and caregivers. They have no ability to understand complex events, anticipate the future or understand their feelings. For pre-schoolers, the line between fantasy and reality is a fuzzy one and their understanding of the world revolves entirely around themselves.
Pre-schoolers need consistent care and nurturing. Stick to their normal routines and keep explanations as simple as possible. Tell them which parent will be moving out, who will be looking after them and how often they will be seeing their other parent. Be prepared for lots of questions and lots of short conversations over a long period.
6 to 8 years, and 9 to 11 years
This broader age group has a more developed ability to talk about their feelings. Relationships outside the home – with their teachers, friends and coaches – will have a greater factor in planning their time.
School aged kids may show fear, anxiety, anger or sadness. They may be thinking they can get their parents back together or that they contributed to the divorce. They need to understand that these are adult decisions which they did not cause or influence.
Books about divorce can help at this age, or talking in general terms such as “some kids feel sad, afraid or even angry when their parents’ divorce, what do you think about that?”
12 to 14 years
This age group understands what’s going on, and have an ability to take part in discussions and to ask questions.
Seeing a counsellor at this age is very helpful, as well as making sure your kids can contact you at all times, day or night.
Keeping communication open decreases the chances that their emotional issues will slip under the radar. They may act otherwise, but most tweens and teens still crave a connection with their parents. Keep talking to them, even if they seem to be pushing you away. And make some of the conversation about what they want to talk about.
General tips for discussing divorce with kids
There are a few hard and fast rules that apply to discussing divorce with your children, no matter their age. Children thrive when they have a strong bond with both their parents, if it’s safe for them to do so.
- Avoid sharing inappropriate information – don’t discuss adult details with your kids. They will resent you for it.
- Keep a unified parental front – set clear expectations and boundaries. If you and your ex are sending out conflicting messages, it will cause confusion and anxiety.
- Don’t play the blame game – you know why you’re separating; your kids don’t need to know. It’s unhealthy for kids to feel they have to blame one parent.
- It’s not the kids’ fault and they need to know that – give the children a reason for the split, but make it a general one, e.g., “we grew apart”. The reality in your mind and what you tell the kids does not have to match.
- It’s not over until it’s over – don’t tell the kids you’re splitting until there’s absolutely no going back from that decision. Inform their teachers and other family members who can support them.
- Be consistent – give your kids concrete information and don’t make promises you can’t keep.
- Stay calm – if you’re anxious, they will be too. It’s ok to be sad, but it’s not ok as a parent to be out of control in front of your kids or neglect their routines.
For any information you may need about divorce, or to speak with one of our experienced family lawyers, please contact Michael Lynch Family Lawyers on: (07) 3221 4300 or email: [email protected]