Divorce or separation is a difficult time for everyone involved, including extended family and of course the children. Whatever the age of the children, they will feel a great sense of loss, confusion and uncertainty. Although to a certain extent this can’t be avoided once the decision to go your separate ways has been made; there are many ways that you can make this time of upheaval a much less painful and traumatic experience. We will look at ways to understand and recognise issues for the under 5’s and also children aged between 6 and 11.
Understanding Children under 5
Toddlers, pre-schoolers and reception aged children will have a very limited understanding of what is happening and will have no knowledge of adult issues and problems.
Toddlers – they are obviously very dependent on parents or caregivers. They have no ability to understand complex events, anticipate or imagine future situations or even understand their own feelings.
Pre-schoolers and reception children – they are beginning to develop independence, but are still very highly dependent on their parents or carers. They have limited ability to understand cause and effect and are still unable to think ahead to the future. Their understanding of the world revolves only around themselves, they have some ability to think about feelings, but very limited ability to articulate them.
How to communicate with children under 5
The first thing to remember is that you need to keep your language simple, your sentences short and be honest but simplify the message. They will just need to know the basics, for example:
- Mummy and Daddy are going to stop living together and will now live in different houses.
- You will still see both of us regularly.
- Mummy and Daddy will take turns to look after you.
- Mummy and Daddy still love you very much.
- This is not your fault.
You need to also remember to ask them if they have any questions, as you may think they have a clear understanding of what is happening but in fact they don’t. Their concerns will be very much focused on the immediate things that concern them: ‘what will happen to my hamster?’
Don’t expect it to be one conversation, where they will just accept and understand. You will need to have many little conversations about it with them. Be patient and consistent with children this age, as repeated questions can be a sign of wanting reassurance, a sign of insecurity and inner turmoil. An example of this is a 5 year old boy, whose parents have been living separately for nearly two years, he still asks: ‘Can Daddy come back and live with us again?’
Signs of Confusion and Stress in children under 5
Signs of distress and confusion in pre-schoolers include fear, anger or emotional instability, which could be expressed indirectly through clinginess, anxiety, whinging, hitting or general irritability. For example, a child who is usually happy to be dropped at nursery, may suddenly become very clingy and tearful at drop off time. Or toddlers who were happily sleeping through the night may suddenly start to wake and want your company or reassurance.
How to help the under 5s
With their limited cognitive ability, this age group can easily develop inaccurate ideas about the separation or divorce. For example if the father is the one to leave the family home they may easily come to the conclusion that the father has left THEM, and that it is their fault for being naughty. Talking in simple terms with the child and giving a lot of reassurance will help them to feel more comfortable about it. It is important that both parents talk with them and confirm their love for them as well as letting them ask questions.
It may sound obvious but consistent care and nurturing give children a sense of stability and reassurance, which any child should have. But parents who have gone through a traumatic split may find that they are so distraught themselves that they forget that their children will be needing more love and attention at this time. Children of this age will need their routines to stay stable, with toddler groups, meals, bath and bed times staying as they were.
Understanding 6 to 11 year olds
6 to 8 year olds – have a little more ability to think and talk about feelings. They have a broader and in most cases a less egocentric view of the situation. However they still have a limited understanding of complex adult issues like divorce and a limited understanding of adult emotions. They are less dependent on their parents or carers though in the sense that they are developing more relationships outside the home environment at school.
9 to 11 year olds – have a much more developed ability to understand, think and talk about feelings and the circumstances surrounding their parent’s separation or divorce. Their relationships outside the family (friends and teachers) are more developed and become a greater factor in planning the child’s time. This age group tend to see things in black and white with no shades of grey, meaning they may assign blame to one parent for the split.
How to communicate with children aged 6 to 11 years
Children at the upper end of this age range are more able to talk about what they’re feeling, but this doesn’t mean they will want to. It is important not to force them, and a better approach is to start by saying something like “Some children feel sad, afraid or even angry when their parent’s separate” – this is much less threatening than a more direct question with an assumption that they are feeling sad or angry.
It is still important at this age to keep the details of the separation simple and explain things in a reassuring way, letting them know the same messages as you would a younger child: It’s not their fault, both parents still love them and will be involved in their lives. Keep arguments and conflict away from the children, don’t involve them or ask them to pass messages on to the other parent. Don’t ever criticise the other parent to the children or make them feel that they should take sides.
Signs of stress and confusion in 6 to 11 year olds
School-aged children may show their distress as fear, anxiety, anger or sadness, and some will show or verbalise very clear signs that they are missing their absent parent. Some may have fantasies about their parents getting back together and wonder what they can do to make that happen. It is important that the children understand that the adults have made a decision that won’t be reversed and that they didn’t cause and can’t influence the decision. Hanging on to these dreams of reconciliation will hinder the healing process and leave them in a perpetual state of false hope.
Watch for sudden drops in their grades at school, as well as speaking to the teachers to make sure that no strange or out of character behavioural issues become apparent.
In some cases, a child may develop physical symptoms (for example, stomach or head ache) or an emergency situation so that parents have to care for them together. They may try to create events or reasons for parents to have contact.
How to help children aged between 6 and 11 years
Always be available to listen and talk with them about their feelings, be understanding of their sense of loss. Let them know that you understand how they are feeling. Make sure that their routines stay consistent, that they are eating enough and sleeping well at night.
If there is conflict between you and your ex-spouse, be sure to contain this and not involve the children. At hand over times, limit conversation if there is a chance that one of you may become angry.
Always encourage and be positive about the time they spend with the other parent, never make the children feel they have to take sides or choose one parent over the other. This may be hard in some cases, but it is important to try.
Children and mediation
For children over the age of 7, it is worth knowing that mediation can help. More often than not children like to be heard and have their opinions considered especially when decisions are being made about arrangements for them. Talking through their feelings and what they would like to happen with a mediator means that they can express what they want without the pressure of feeling they have to say what the parent wants to hear. In many cases they will ask that their thoughts be passed back to the parents.
Can we help?
If you are going through divorce or separation and there are children involved, we may be able to help you to resolve conflict about any aspect of the separation. We offer a free MIAM and you can find out here if you are eligible for free mediation sessions. Call us on 0117 9243880 for advice and help.
Next month we will be looking specifically at helping and understanding teenagers going through their parent’s separation or divorce.
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