Divorce is one of the most stressful events that can happen in your life, and kids have a hard time processing the news and imagining what their "new normal" will be like. Dr. Jennifer Guttman, PsyD Clinical Psychologist provides the following tips for parents and how to talk to their kids. Adjust each tip to the age and stage of your child:
- Reassure Your Child. Dr. Guttman says that it's important to reassure your child, especially younger children, that although adults may fall out of love with each other, parents never fall out of love with their children. "It's important that they know that they will be loved by each parent and that the parent/child bond cannot be broken" she says.
- Be Honest, Open and Clear with Your Promises. "Don't make promises to children that you can't keep. Reassure them about what you know, and be honest about what you don't. For example, if you know they will be remaining in their family home, tell them that. If you're not sure, tell them that you'll do your best, but you're just not sure," says Dr. Guttman. If your kids ask whether the holidays will be spent together with both parents and you know for certain that they will be, be honest and say so. If the handling of holidays hasn't yet been decided, tell them the adults are still working it out, but you'll let them know what the decisions are when you know them yourself. Dr. Guttman stresses the importance of not allowing your child(ren) to feel that there are any secrets being kept from them that directly affect them. No one wants to feel that way, especially children.
- Do Not Be Afraid of or Diminish Their Feelings. It's hard for parents to see their child emotionally upset, especially surrounding a situation they themselves have partly created, like a divorce. Kids can have varying feelings, and honoring and respecting those are key. Dr. Guttman says, "Don't diminish their feelings because it hurts to see them angry or sad. Create a safe place to express themselves. Bottling up their emotions will not help them move through the divorce process."
- Give Them Reassurance But Not Full Control. Tell your kids that you will do what you can to take their requests into consideration, but make sure that you don't give them too much power or allow them to think they have more decision-making power than they really have. "They should feel like a part of the process, since it affects them, but not feel like they have the power to captain the ship" says Dr. Guttman.
- This is No Time for Secrets. Some kids want to keep their parents' divorce a secret, but Dr. Guttman says it's important to encourage them otherwise. She says, "Encourage them to get support from their peers and/or take advantage of a peer support group that may be offered by the school. You need to make sure they don't experience shame around the divorce. Communication reduces the risk of embarrassment or shame." For younger children, it may be beneficial to share with their teacher and school guidance counselor so everyone in your child's life knows the struggles they may be facing at home, which impacts school too.