6 Considerations for Helping Young Children through Divorce

Two embracing loving teddy bear toys sitting on window-sillIt’s never easy to explain adult concepts to very young children. Not only do they have a limited vocabulary, but they generally have a limited ability to understand all but the simplest ideas about divorce, even at a time when they are just beginning to develop logical thinking skills. This does not mean that your children do not have emotions about the experiences they have as a result of the changes that are occurring, or that you can’t help them to understand as much as they can.

This article offers some ideas about how to engage with your young children regarding divorce. Please be aware that you may have the same conversation(s) a number of times, as this is a major source of learning for young children. Remember, also, that it is not necessary to give a lot of information all at once. Your children will signal you regarding what they are ready to hear by the questions they ask. 

  1. Talk about what divorce means. Assuming it’s true, tell your children that their parents have decided to live in two different houses. Young children often believe that things happen because of them or that they are at fault. Help them understand that you both still love them and they will be well taken care of. Be sure to protect them from any negative feelings you have about your spouse or ex.
  2. Your children have feelings, too. At what is likely a difficult emotional time for yourself, you are responsible for taking care of your children when they are having emotions that parallel your own. It is a frightening time for them as well. They need to know it is OK to feel how they feel: sad, confused, worried, etc.
  3. Prepare children for changes they can see. Children see the changes around them, such as when one parent moves out or when they move out with a parent. Help them understand what is happening by telling them what to expect. Tell them that tomorrow they are going with Mommy to live with Grandma and Grandpa, or tomorrow Daddy will be moving to a new house. It’s best for new residences to be ready for them when they get there, if at all possible, to establish a sense of safety and consistency of care.
  4. Use concrete language. Take the time to tell your children exactly what they will be doing. For example: “After you wake up, I will take you to Mama’s house. You can bring any toy you want when you go. Then you will sleep at Mama’s house and I will bring you to Mommy’s house tomorrow.” Young children often think about time in terms of how many times they will sleep before something happens.
  5. Reinforce love. Even while very young, children learn about love quickly. They hear “I love you” and learn to depend on it. They may wonder if their parents have stopped loving each other and whether that means either of you could stop loving them as well. Be sure to remind them that they are loved and will continue to be loved by all involved.
  6. Be candid about getting back together. Children of divorced or divorcing parents often have a strong desire for their parents to live or be together again. Your children may ask you about this possibility repeatedly. If it’s not going to happen, it is important to help them understand this and allow them to experience their feelings and adapt to the changes in their lives.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD, therapist in San Ramon, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • juliet

    juliet

    February 11th, 2015 at 3:42 PM

    My parents got a divorce when I was really young so it did not seem to have the same negative impact on me that it did with friends whose parents got divorced when they were a little older. I guess that I was too young to understand what was going on and I think that they tried their best together to shield me from the bad stuff that could have been said. I don’t know, they just seemed to handle it in a way where I never felt like one was leaving me or the other, I always felt safe and I always knew that they had my back when I needed them, even when I needed them to do something together.

  • Marcus

    Marcus

    February 12th, 2015 at 3:39 AM

    @juliet, it sounds like when your parents went through their divorce they did all of the right things the right way to help you stay as secure as possible.
    But we know that there are many more families out there who do not get that same luck, they are dragged through the mudslinging right along with the parents who are divorcing and I swear that this makes such a horrible impact on the kids.
    They end up with no real idea about what a meaningful and loving relationship looks like or how that is even meant to be experienced because this is not what they saw from their own parents growing up.

  • clint

    clint

    February 12th, 2015 at 9:11 AM

    Could anyone suggest the right age when it would be okay to get your child some counseling if they are struggling with divorce?
    Both of my kids are very young and their mom and I are probably moving in that direction, not sure yet.
    But the kids, I know that they know that something is going on and it hurts me to think about how much this is hurting them.

  • Carressa Smith LPCC LICDC

    Carressa Smith LPCC LICDC

    February 17th, 2015 at 5:27 AM

    Clint, I would recommend family counseling. This is a change that the family is going through together, even if you divorce.

  • zizzycat

    zizzycat

    February 13th, 2015 at 9:40 AM

    my parents divorced a couple years ago when I was 15 and I was the last to know. they thought keeping it from me was best and they were so wrong. Im still mad at them both for it but the older I get it gets more ok. For a while though I hated their guts for it

  • Monica

    Monica

    February 13th, 2015 at 11:12 AM

    The children can have a very hard time dealing and coping with this new change in their lives if their parents are not honest with them about what is happening. I think that there are parents who think that they will shield their kids from it by just not being honest with them about what is happening. The only thing that I think that this leads to are more questions and concerns. Be straight with them, you can leave out some of the gory details, but at least let them know what is going on and how the two of you still intend to try to work on this together so that there is as little impact on the kids as possible.

  • nicholas

    nicholas

    February 14th, 2015 at 9:13 AM

    I used to think that it would be the worst thing in the world to get a divorce, but now that I have friends with kids and I see how that is effecting their kids when they are in marriages that should just end, I honestly can see that in certain situations it is probably way better for the kids if the parents would just go ahead and split up. There can be a way that it can be done where the pain is limited, and I think that this whole idea of staying together for the kids is just wrong.

  • Amanda F.

    Amanda F.

    February 16th, 2015 at 5:25 AM

    Let the children know that this is not their fault, that they had nonthinking to do with the marriage ending and then continue to do anything in your power that shows them just how much you mean that!

  • peyton

    peyton

    February 17th, 2015 at 12:22 PM

    I have seen this happen so many times and I think that there are more times then not when the parents have no real understanding of the damage that they are doing to their kids. I know that we all have to be happy too, and that without that the kids never will be, but it sure would be nice to consider these things before even bringing kids into this kind of environment.

  • stacy

    stacy

    February 18th, 2015 at 3:47 PM

    My husband decided one day after just a week of taking that he had to leave. He left and went to the arms of a friend who called her self my sister. He has been with her since November of last year. We are still married and he says he is engaged to her already. We have a 12 year old son and 10 year old daughter. At the time this started we live in his parents home, he told me to leave. I lived in a state where I had no one to live with so I moved away with my kids. What am I suppose to tell my kids? My son is failing in school because he is so unhappy. I have been with my husband since we were 16 and we are now 34. He threw away our family for another woman. I am lost and very angry at him for doing this to me and my kids.

  • richard

    richard

    March 5th, 2015 at 9:56 AM

    First off, let me say I’m sorry for your situation.
    I feel you anguish as i too went through a similar event with my now ex-wife of 22 years.
    Our youngest is 12 and a girl.
    Our son is 17 and he tells me he lost respect for his mother do I suspect your son is feeling abandoned.
    His self esteem has been shot to pieces by the insanity of his fathers selfish actions.
    The lad needs a father figure so get him involved with a cub scout program.
    Counseling for all of you as well.
    You need support and many organizations provide then free of charge.
    It’s hard especially when you’re alone and the world is closing in on your going family.
    Also, don’t forget you need some “me” time to keep a level head.
    Without you, your children have no one to love them.
    With that said, remind them that you’re there for them, and express your love daily.
    I baked and cook for my children. They all asked me to teach them so I used it as a bonding moment.
    God bless you and stay strong.
    Your lives are far from over, it’s simply taking on a whole new direction so keep your head up high and be positive.

  • Virgina

    Virgina

    March 6th, 2016 at 10:52 PM

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