University of Missouri Extension

GH6600, Revised March 2004

Helping Children Understand Divorce

Illustration (by Dennis Murphy)Kim Leon
State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies
Kelly Cole, Extension Associate

When parents decide to divorce, they typically have been through a series of events that have led them to this decision. Whether or not children are aware of parents' decisions depends on many things, including parents' behaviors and children's experiences. In some families, husbands and wives may argue frequently in front of the children, leaving children to suspect that something is going on. In other families, parents may talk quietly about their differences without the children ever knowing. And in other families, parents may argue sometimes and quietly handle their differences at other times. Regardless of the type of adult arguments and interactions that children experience, when parents decide to divorce, children need to know.

The purpose of this guide is to help you understand the thoughts and feelings that children may have when their parents decide to divorce and to provide some tips for talking with children about divorce.

Talking with children about divorce

Children's reactions to parental divorce are related to how parents inform them of their decision. Because of this, it is important for parents to think carefully about how they will tell their children and what they will tell them. When possible, the entire family should meet together so that both parents can answer children's questions. This strategy may also help parents to avoid blaming each other for the divorce. The following tips might make this a smoother process:

What to tell children

Remember that divorce is confusing for children. When you first talk with children, limit your discussion to the most important and most immediate issues; children can become confused if they are given too much information at once. Children need to hear that their basic needs will be met, that someone will still fix breakfast in the morning, help them with their homework, and tuck them into bed at night. Children also need to know that their relationship with BOTH parents will continue, if possible. In the face of so many changes, children also need to hear what will remain the same. Parents can reassure their children through words and actions that their love will continue despite the changes in routine family life.

During these family discussions, it is important for parents to tell children that the divorce is final and avoid giving children false hopes that the parents will reunite. Parents can also use this time to tell children that the divorce is not their fault. Many children believe that the divorce is a result of something that they did. Even younger children who seem to have no understanding of what is going on may need extra reassurance during this time. For instance, when asked why parents divorce, some children may explain that parents are divorcing because the children misbehaved or received bad grades in school. Children need repeated reassurance from parents that they are not responsible for the divorce.

Remember to ask children about their fears and concerns. Give children time to think about the divorce and the changes ahead. Meet again as a family to talk about new questions and to reassure children of your ongoing involvement in their lives.

Take your children's questions and concerns seriously and LISTEN to what they say. As stated by one child, "this is gonna affect the rest of my life and I don't know if they just don't realize that, or don't care, or what, but I don't feel like I'm being heard."

Children need to know that parents recognize the impact of divorce on children's lives. By listening to children's thoughts and feelings about the divorce, parents demonstrate their ongoing care and concern.

Realize that feelings of loss and anger are typical. You can't change your child's feelings, but it is important to let your child know you understand them. For example, "I know you must be really sad that you can't see your dad today."

What I need from my mom and dad

Sibling relationships in divorced families

When parents divorce, brothers and sisters may begin to interact differently. While some siblings become closer at this time, others may argue more and become emotionally distant. It is difficult to predict how children will respond in any particular family.

The emotional stress that parents feel following divorce may temporarily reduce the amount of attention they are able to give their children. As a result, some children turn to one another for nurturance and support. Because

siblings experience many of the same emotions, they are able to understand each other's feelings and concerns and to reassure each other. Other children, however, may engage in more conflict with their siblings. These children may feel confused and angry about the changes that are occurring in their family and they take these negative

feelings out on their siblings. Some siblings also engage in more conflict because they are competing for their parents' attention.

Parents may be able to reduce their children's rivalry by talking with them, listening to them, and spending some time alone with each child. Parents also need to realize that younger siblings may have an easier time expressing their confusion than their older siblings.

Therefore, parents should be sure to talk to the older siblings even if they do not seem upset. It is also important for parents to encourage children to continue rituals that were established before the divorce so they will have some feelings of continuity and stability.

Children's understanding of divorce by age group

Children's understanding of parental divorce depends on their developmental stage. It is important for parents to know what thoughts and feelings children of different ages may be having so that they can modify their own behaviors to help children adjust to the divorce.

Infants

Understandings

Feelings

What parents can do for infants

Toddlers

Understandings

Feelings

What parents can do for toddlers

Preschool and early elementary children

Understandings

Feelings

What parents can do for preschool and early elementary children

Preteens and adolescents

Understandings

Feelings

What parents can do for preteens and adolescents

Using books to talk with children about divorce

Children's books about divorce can help them work through the issues they face. Reading books can give children a way to express their emotions and discuss issues that they may not otherwise be comfortable talking about. These books may also help parents understand children's experiences of divorce.

For parents

References

We extend our thanks to Joan Turner, Brett Dayton, and Maridith Jackson for their careful review of the children's books.
This guide is a revision and update of two previous guides: Helping Children Understand Divorce, originally written by Sara Gable, state specialist in human development and family studies at MU, and Kelly Cole, former extension associate at MU, and The Effects of Divorce on Children, originally written by Karen DeBord, former state specialist in human development and family studies at MU.
We extend our appreciation to Amanda Kowal, assistant professor of human development and family studies, for her insights on sibling relationships in divorced families.

 

GH6600 Helping Children Understand Divorce | University of Missouri Extension

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