To children, those fateful words can mean a range of things, depending on their age. A baby or toddler won’t understand them at all but may pick up on your somber tone and be confused or frightened by it; an older child may worry that she’ll wind up like a friend at school who sees her dad only rarely, or that she’ll have to move to a smaller house and share a bedroom with her little sister.
While it’s just about impossible to put a positive spin on such a negative event, there’s a lot parents can do to ease the difficult transition from intact family to divided one. Target your initial broaching of the topic to your child’s age (if you have kids of widely differing ages, you might consider talking to each of them separately). And then be prepared to have your child come back with more questions as the years pass and she comes to understand the situation more fully. Some guidelines for talking to kids of various ages when a marriage splits apart.
While you may think that infants are too young to be affected by divorce, they’re surprisingly intuitive. Even a 6-week-old can sense that his routine has been altered —he no longer sees both parents daily, he’s suddenly eating at a different time or sleeping in a new room. Schedule changes can be particularly anxiety-provoking for babies. “They need structure and continuity to feel safe and to trust that all is right with the world,” says M. Gary Neuman, author of Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way.
It’s least disruptive to keep an infant at home and have the noncustodial parent visit frequently for short periods—an hour a day, for example, or two hours three times a week. “For the first three months of my son’s life, I had his dad come to my house whenever he wanted to see the baby,” says a mom in Chagrin Falls, OH, who split from her child’s father before giving birth. If the baby must move back and forth between households, try to maintain the same naptime, feeding schedule and bedtime rituals in each place. While you needn’t re-create the nursery down to the Pooh Bear nightlight, purchasing two sets of identical sheets or bumpers can make an infant feel more at ease. Always make sure any favorite blankie or stuffed animal travels from house to house.
An infant can sense if you’re depressed or angry and may also interpret hostility, sadness or withdrawal as a reflection of your feelings for him. This can erode his sense of security and confidence, so it’s crucial to deal with your own personal demons. “See a counselor, a rabbi, a minister; join a divorce support group; lean on your friends,” advises Neuman. Be extra demonstrative with your baby, both physically and emotionally—you can’t hug him too many times a day.
Then be prepared for some fallout: Babies whose parents are going through a divorce may cry more often and sleep less soundly than those living in intact households. This is a natural reaction to stress and should subside within a couple of months, after they’ve adjusted to the new routine. They may also experience more severe separation anxiety (which typically crops up at 8 or 9 months). “When something is taken away from you, in this case a parent, it’s natural to want to hold on tight to what you have left,” says Arnold Stolberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. Until his anxiety eases, every time you leave your child with his other parent, be sure to reassure him that you’re coming back. While he may not understand the words, he’ll pick up on your soothing tone. The good news about splitting up while your child is a baby is that, all other things being equal, he may ultimately suffer fewer adverse effects from a divorce than an older child, since he won’t remember his parents ever having been together.
A toddler isn’t old enough to understand abstract concepts like “marriage” and “divorce,” so you’ll need to keep things concrete when broaching the subject. A simple statement, such as “Mommy and Daddy make each other sad and are going to live in different places, but you make us very happy” will do. At this age, a child’s main concern is how the breakup will affect her routine, so explain the situation as specifically as possible. “Mommy will live here in this house, and Daddy will live at Grandpa’s house” is easier for a toddler to grasp than “Daddy is moving to Arizona.” And don’t forget to reassure your child that no matter where everyone lives, you and your former spouse will still be her mommy and daddy and will love her as much as always. “When my husband and I divorced, he moved to Oregon for a year. I wanted him to have a close relationship with our daughter, who was eighteen months at the time, so I made sure to talk about him frequently and to tell her how much he loves her,” says one Chicago mom.
Just because toddlers can’t always verbalize their emotions doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling them. They may become sad and withdrawn or act out their anxiety by hitting or biting. If you sense your child’s upset, try to give voice to her feelings: “You look sad. I wonder if it’s been tough for you not to see Daddy all the time” or “How do you feel about moving to a new house? That can be difficult.”
If aggression becomes a problem, explain that it’s okay to be upset that Mommy or Daddy has moved out but that it’s not okay to hit. Then try to redirect the anger by encouraging your child to say “I’m mad” or to scribble an “angry” picture or pound a play hammer.
As with infants, it’s wise to allow your child to have frequent visits with the noncustodial parent. Every day for an hour and a half is ideal, but two or three visits a week may be more practical. Again, young kids may have a difficult time warming up to the noncustodial parent if they’re out of touch for more than a few days. If your toddler balks at going to your former spouse’s house, talk about the fun she’ll have there.
Read the other half of this article on parenting.com linked here: http://bit.ly/2gWKemG