Children thrive on predictability. They feel more secure when they have dependable routines. That’s why parents should typically approach upcoming changes slowly, carefully, and with a plan, whether it’s a new caregiver, a new home, a new school, or a change in family structure.
Once you and your partner have decided to separate, how do you talk to your young child? What can you say and do to help them get through the process as healthy and resilient as possible?
1. Share the information soon. Young children are remarkably perceptive and will know something is going on. Secrecy can be more damaging than knowledge, because it leads to all kinds of worries, most of which are worse than the impending reality.
2. Talk as a family. When you decide you are separating, and have established a plan for moving forward with it, tell your child together with your partner, and include all your children together in the conversation.
3. Choose a good time. Don’t have the divorce discussion when one or more family members are tired, hungry, or needing to be somewhere soon. It may turn out to be a very short discussion—your child might not have any questions and just want to get on with playing—but be available in case they want to talk, shout, argue, cry, or snuggle.
4. Keep it simple. A young child doesn’t want to know about—and can’t understand—the complex reasons for the separation. In your first conversation about it, the simple facts are enough—where you’ll all be living, who’ll take them to school and pick them up, how often they’ll spend time with each parent, the fact they will still have two parents.
5. Emphasize your abiding love and protection. A young child’s biggest fear is that they’ll lose one or both of their parents. Reassure your child as many times as necessary that you will continue to love them forever, no matter what, and that you will keep them safe.
6. Be loving, calm, and confident. Don’t burden your little one with your anger, worries, or issues. They need you to be strong and confident in your assurances that everyone will be fine. Save the drama for your friends and therapist.
7. Be kind, caring, and respectful with—and about—the other parent. This will help your child feel safe in the world. No matter the problems you have with your partner, your child will be happier, healthier, and stronger if they feel they can count on you working together on their behalf.
8. Take ownership of the change. Be on the lookout for signs your child blames himself (most kids do). They might become excessively good and compliant, for example, or antagonistic and contrary. Reassure them that it is you and the other parent who needed to make the change and that it is not their fault.
9. Wait and listen. Be alert, attentive, and available for the next several days, weeks, and months. Some young children are filled with immediate questions, and others take months to process the information.
10. Answer your child’s questions as honestly as possible. Don’t try to sweep their worries under the rug. Be sympathetic, patient, and as honest as you can.
11. Be patient with regression. Some common reactions to a change like this include fear, anger, temper tantrums, tears, clinginess, emotional instability, anxiety, whininess, and general irritability. Your child might have trouble getting to sleep, start bedwetting, or have nightmares that require your calm, reassuring presence.
12. Maintain the old routines and schedules. Consistent care and nurturing are more important than ever in any transition, including divorce. They reassure your child that the world is safe and predictable. Meals, outdoor play, bathtime, and bedtime routines are more important than ever now.
13. Tell their teacher or caregiver. Prepare the other adults in your child’s life for possible mood changes and questions. Ask them to be sensitive and understanding, but not to ask the child about it or mention it unless the child introduces the topic.
14. Be patient with your own emotions, and your partner’s. The more mature you and your partner can be during the process of separation, the better for your child. But this is a challenging time for most parents, emotionally, physically, and financially. If you or your partner is angry or upset in your child’s company, accept that, and apologize to your child, explaining that change is always difficult. Emphasize your confidence you will get through it, and that everyone will be fine, as well as your understanding that it won’t be easy.
15. Don’t drag it out. Once you have told your child it is happening, get on with the practical business of establishing new situations and routines.
Change is stressful, but it doesn’t have to be damaging. A child whose parents are confident, mature, loving, and trustworthy can make it through separation and divorce with better coping skills and strengths. This is a critically important time in your young child’s life, a time to rise to the responsibility of being a parent.