Most filings for divorce occur in the month of January. Some couples who have been anticipating a break up wait until January to avoid spoiling the holidays for family. Others are spurred by the arrival of a new year to make a fresh start.
Whatever the circumstances, one thing should be a priority for parents beginning divorce proceedings: telling the children. With their little worlds about to undergo a seismic change, children need to be prepared for the road ahead.
Your kids should know that you are splitting up, and why. Choose a clear, age-appropriate explanation, such as “Mommy and daddy don’t want to fight anymore, so we will live in different houses” for younger children. Older children may know and understand more — scale your explanation to their level.
Do not speak negatively about your spouse, difficult though it may be in some cases. Children feel they have to take sides when parents criticize each other, leaving them feeling torn and upset.
Children often have many questions about how the divorce will affect their everyday lives. Be prepared to answer a laundry list of questions about living arrangements, school, friends, activities and extended family. If they do not ask, offer some information, but be careful not to overwhelm them.
Reassure them, often
Many children believe that they are somehow responsible for the dissolution of their family. Tell them that they did not cause the divorce. Also reassure them that divorce is not between parents and children, and that they are still loved by both. Hugs, cuddles, and being together are just as important as hearing, “I love you.”
Children may take time to process and understand what is happening. They might seem clear one day, and confused the next. Be prepared to have many loving conversations.
Help them find the words
Children may have difficulty finding the words for how they feel. Listen carefully to what they are trying communicate. Observe their behavior, too. “You look sad. Do you feel sad?” is one way to help them name their feelings and talk.
Let them grieve
Reassure your children that it is normal and okay to be upset about the news, and that they do not have to hide these feelings from you. Some children go into people-pleasing mode, while others do not seem to react at all. Instead they start having problems at school or show other symptoms of stress. Tell them that they can safely express their feelings at home, and then allow it.
Kids may pick up on your own sadness or anxiety and may want to fix it. Reassure them that it is okay for you to be sad or worried too, and that you will be happy again later. If your own moods seem out of control or overwhelming, seek counseling.
Get help for them
Some children may need extra support as they process their parents’ divorce. Watch for these symptoms of depression and anxiety:
- Changes in sleep patterns, sleeping too much or insomnia
- Changes in eating, lack of appetite or overeating
- Self-injury, such as cutting
- Sudden, angry outbursts that are out of character
- Trouble at school, including falling grades or delinquency
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Lack of interest in hobbies and pursuits
- Social withdrawal, including from friends and loved ones
As a parent, you know your child the best. If you notice these signs, or any other troubling changes, do not hesitate to contact a therapist or counselor.