When parents separate or go through a divorce, it might feel like uncharted territory. It might feel like you’re not sure what to say to your children because of anger, shame, resentment, and frustration that surrounds your relationship with your spouse.
However, the absence of your comforting words and support can make children feel like the divorce is their fault. It’s important that throughout the tumultuousness of the change, you help your children feel loved, support, and wanted. Because otherwise, they’ll feel unloved, unsupported, and unwanted.
In fact, the University of Missouri did a survey of children experiencing parental divorce. Based upon their responses, researchers developed the following want list from children of divorcing parents:
- I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please write letters, make phone calls, and ask me lots of questions. When you don’t stay involved, I feel like I’m not important and that you don’t really love me.
- Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me, I think that I did something wrong and I feel guilty.
- I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.
- Please communicate directly with my other parent so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth.
- When talking about my other parent, please say only nice things, or don’t say anything at all. When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side.
- Please remember that I want both of you to be a part of my life. I count on my mom and dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.
It’s important to know that children at various ages are going to understand divorce differently, and so may have different needs when it comes to making it through the change. Infants, toddlers, early elementary, tweens, and teens are each going to have their own understanding or perceptions of what’s going on between the two people who are meant to give structure to their lives.
Even infants can feel that change is happening. For instance, they may notice a change in their parent’s energy level or emotional state. Older infants will notice when one parent is not in the room. They might become more irritable, have trouble sleeping, and have difficulty with daily routine.
Toddlers recognize that one parent is no longer living at home. They have the ability to be empathetic to parents who might be feeling sad. They might have a hard time separating from parents, express anger, and even regress in their development, such as losing their toilet training.
Preschool and elementary age children have the ability to understand divorce and that parents might no longer live together. Yet, they will likely blame themselves, worry about how daily life will continue, have nightmares, and exhibit signs of grieving.
Tweens and adolescents understand divorce but they may have a hard time accepting it. Although they have developed a more complex thinking, they often will still blame themselves for the divorce. They may feel abandoned, act out aggressively, feel the need to grow up quickly, feel anxiety about how it’s going to turn out, and question their beliefs on love, marriage, and family.
The above want list might best suited for tweens and teens. However, it’s important for parents to know the unique needs of their children and tend to them during divorce as best they can.
Leon, K. & Cole, K. (March 2004). Helping Children Understand Divorce. University of Missouri. Retrieved on August 18, 2014 from: http://extension.missouri.edu/p/GH6600