It’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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.