Divorce and young children | Dr. Gray

Divorce creates large changes and emotional turmoil in a young child’s life. Change — positive or negative — is difficult to accept at any age, regardless of the circumstances. Throughout divorce, young children need the love and support of the adults in their lives more than ever.

Here are a few suggestions to help families navigate the troubled waters of separation and divorce:

• Talk to your child honestly, in simple age-appropriate terms about the divorce. Keep the conversation brief, but expect to have more conversations in the future. Answer any questions your child has as truthfully as possible.

• Remind your children that they are not at fault, nor did they cause the divorce. Young children have a strong tendency to internalize feelings and blame themselves. Frequently remind your child that divorce is an adult problem and a decision that parents make. Do not blame your child.

• Provide daily routine and consistency such as school and friendships. Your child will be relying on the familiar in their young lives as change and turmoil are introduced. Emphasize and remind your child what will remain the same as they will be overly focused on their experience of change.

• Be supportive and positive toward the other parent. Despite the anger and misunderstandings between you and your spouse that led to the divorce proceedings, it is tantamount that you do not shed the other parent in a negative light. If you are negative or derogatory about your former spouse, your child’s self-esteem will also be negatively affected.

• Allow your child to love both parents. Your child will feel conflicted and torn by loyalty as they attempt to reassess their relationship with both parents. Don’t ask your child to choose sides. Instead, make it clear that there is plenty of love for both of you and that is what you want. It is not a competition.

• Expect your child to experience many different feelings including sadness, anger, guilt, regret, fear and confusion. Expect the unexpected. A shy child may start acting out while a once extroverted child may become shy and withdrawn. If you notice a sudden change in the behavior of your child during this time, please seek professional help.

Above all, remind your child throughout the divorce and separation process how much you love and care about them. Explain that the love you feel for them is constant and permanent. Allow room for the changes and feelings your child will be experiencing.

Recommended reading

For adults:

• “Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids,” by Isolina Ricci, Ph.D.

• “Helping Your kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way,” by Gary Neuman, L.M.H.C.

For young children:

• “Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families,” by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown

• “Two Homes (A book about separation and divorce),” by Claire Masurel

• “Was It The Chocolate Pudding? A Story for Little Kids About Divorce,” by Sandra Levins

• Web Resources for kids about separation and divorce:

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