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27th November 2018

How to Tell Your Children about Divorce: An Age Appropriate Guide

For parents, telling your children that you are separating or getting divorced can be a rather upsetting and painful conversation. As adults you are likely to have been unhappy for some time or been on a journey through your separation, but for the children it may come as a complete surprise.

       

There are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions to speaking to your children about a break up, but it is important to keep in mind a few key points that will help you deliver the news in the right way and also help your children come to terms with the changes.

       

Give them reassurance and security – Let them know that both parents love them and will be there to look after them just as before.

     

Tell the children together as parents – you are showing a united front and allowing them to ask you both questions together.

     

Tell them in the comfort of your own home – this will allow them to express themselves more than if they are out in public.

     

Be honest – don’t go into details that aren’t appropriate for them to know, but give them enough information so they can process why you are separating. Answer any questions they have as best as you can.

     

Allow them to express themselves – there is a whole range of emotions to expect, from anger, sadness and anxiety, to withdrawal, a delayed reaction or even no reaction at all! Give them a healthy outlet to express themselves.

     

Make them aware of future arrangements – you might not have all the answers but younger children are very reliant on routine, let them know where they will be living and what the basic arrangements will be.

 

If you have more than one child, or your children have large age gaps it may be sensible to consider whether you tell them together or separately.

       

Age and development have a part to play in how best to deliver the news of separation to your children. Below is a rough guide on what to expect for different age groups, however, you know your own children and their emotional development better and can consider the best form of communication.

 

Babies & Toddlers

 

At this very young age they have complete dependence on their parents, they have no ability to understand complex events or anticipate what the future holds although they may pick up on your own emotions and react to changes in routine. For toddlers or pre-schoolers their understanding of the world revolves around them and although they may have the ability to think about feelings they struggle to communicate them.

 

What to look out for: Signs of distress could include clinginess, irritability and disturbed sleep.

 

How to approach: For babies it is obviously not advisable to discuss separation, but it is key to stick to routines and normality. Consistency gives children a sense of security so it is important to keep to their normal routines (bed, bath, play, meals etc.) with both parents. For pre-schoolers who are talking it is best to keep any discussions around separation very basic and give concrete explanations. Be prepared for questions and provide short answers. One conversation probably won’t do the job and it will take several short talks for the news to sink in.

 

6-11 Year Olds

 

For infant school children, or 6-8 year olds they have more ability to think and talk about feelings but they have a limited understanding to complex circumstances such as divorce. For junior school children, or 9 – 11 year olds they have a more developed understanding and are more able to talk about feelings, however they still have a rather ‘black and white’ view on life and could see themselves to blame for a separation.

 

What to look out for: Signs of anxiety, anger or sadness. Lack of concentration, playing up at home or at school, becoming quiet or distant.

 

How to approach: Stable routines are still important at this age. It is important to explain what is happening and how you expect the future to look after the divorce. Do not go into too much detail or assign blame to one parent, but give them something concrete to pin on why you have decided to split up so that they don’t draw their own conclusions or blame themselves. Be approachable if they have questions or perhaps provide them with a diary that they can talk to you through.

 

12-14 Year Olds

 

Early-teenage children have a greater capacity to understand issues relating to divorce, they will be more aware of divorce through television programmes, films and their friend’s experiences at school. They are more able to take part in discussions and ask questions, but they are starting to question parental authority and will have peers and relationships outside of the family home they can turn to.

 

What to look out for: Irritability, sadness, anger, quietness and distance. Underperforming at school or pushing boundaries.

 

How to approach: Keeping communication open is key with this older age group of children. The more open and honest you are the greater chance you have of problems and concerns being aired and dealt with, rather than slipping under the radar and causing emotional upset. Children this age may act like they are “fine” and don’t need to talk, but sometimes talking about the issue will open up doors. Again, it is important to explain the reasons why, but keep in mind that you want to maintain positive relationships with both parents, so leaving out hurtful details of the separation is still appropriate.

 

Research shows that children who have a strong relationship with both parents and minimal exposure to the conflict are more likely to adapt and adjust to a change in family dynamics.

   

For further guidance on co-parenting during or after a separation or divorce, mediation may be a useful tool. Lamb Brooks offer a relaxed mediation service where both parents can pull together a parenting plan that works in the best interest of the children at the centre of the split.

 

For further information on divorce, separation, children arrangements and other Family Law services please contact the assistant to the Family Team, Julia McGuigan on 01256 305596 or email julia.mcguigan@lambbrooks.com

     

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice.  The law may have changed since this article was published.   Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.

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