As you and your spouse establish separate homes and proceed with your divorce, your kids are bound to have lots of questions. "Explaining divorce to children is a bit like covering the birds and the bees," says M. Gary Neuman, author of Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce. "Only after kids have had time to process the information will they be able to ask for more details." When your child starts peppering you with questions, put these expert tips into practice.
Be patient. You're going through an incredibly stressful time. It's understandable that you might feel like blowing your top when you hear the "why" question for the billionth time. "Why do you have to get a divorce?" "Why can't you and Daddy live together?" Of course, your child isn't really trying to drive you nuts, nor is he trying to trip you up (although you can't blame him for hoping for a different answer). Divorce is confusing to a child. Your child may seem to get it one day and be unsure the next. His mind is trying to adjust to his new reality.
Consider your audience. The same guidelines that apply to other sensitive topics (such as sex) apply here. Give an age-appropriate answer to your child's questions, keeping in mind that a younger child needs fewer details than an older one. Long-winded answers can confuse a child, so keep it short and stick to whatever script you and your ex have agreed on: "Mom and Dad fight too much, so we decided to live apart."
Answer honestly. Children should be spared certain information, such as details about a parent's infidelity, but they do deserve truthful answers. "It's okay to admit that you don't know the answer to a particular question," says Mikki Meyer, Ph.D., a family therapist in New York City. For instance, if you're still negotiating a custody arrangement you might say: "Your dad and I are still working on that. What I do know is that you will get to spend lots of time with each of us. You will be the first to know as soon as we have this figured out."
Don't overshare. Take care to answer just the question asked, especially when talking to a younger child. A 3-year-old asking why Daddy or Mommy is gone needs only to know that because Daddy and Mommy are getting a divorce, each of you will be living in your own homes now. "Keep your answers basic and to the point," Dr. Meyer says. Don't burden your child with ugly details about the divorce or badmouth the other parent. Say, "Your dad needed his own place." Not: "Your selfish father can only think about himself."
Anticipate needs. A parental split affects a child in profound ways, so it's natural that he wants to know what the impact will be on his life. You can help him achieve a sense of routine and cut down on a string of questions by keeping a calendar visible that details which days your child will spend in each parent's home (mark Mom's days in one color and Dad's days in another). Prep your child whenever holidays or school breaks are approaching so he knows where he'll be staying and keep him informed of unexpected changes like a parent traveling out of town.
Be an active listener. Children will experience a range of emotions during this time. Unfortunately, kids aren't always able to clearly express themselves. "You can help your child by identifying the feelings that may be driving his questions and wrapping up your responses with reassuring messages that every child needs to hear," Neuman says. For instance:
- Why do you have to get a divorce? "I know that it's sad that our family is going through this. Your mom [or dad] and I have tried to make changes, but we cannot fix this. We will always be your mom and dad, though, and we will always love you."
- Are we going to move? If you're not sure of this answer yet, try: "I don't know. I can imagine that it is scary for you, not knowing where you are going to live. But your dad [or mom] and I will do our best to find homes in this area so you can stay at your school and see your friends."
- Are you going to get back together? "I understand that you want us all to live together. I'm sorry that isn't going to happen. To be the best parents for you, your dad [or mom] and I need to be apart."
- Was it something I did? "It sounds like you feel guilty or that you are concerned that you might have done something to cause this. But this is entirely our fault, not yours. These are grown-up mistakes that are too big for us to fix. You are a great son [or daughter] and we are so proud to be your parents. We love you."
- Why doesn't mommy [or daddy] love me anymore? "Your mommy [or daddy] and I both love you very much. I know that you're sad that you don't get to see Mommy [or Daddy] every day, but we both still think of you with love every moment of the day."
- Why don't you love daddy [or mommy) anymore? "I will always love your daddy [or mommy] for creating our family. It sounds like you might be worried that I [or your dad/mom] might stop loving you. That will never happen. The love that a daddy or mommy has for a child is forever."
Above all, your child needs reassurance and love. "The two messages kids most need to hear," Neuman says, "are that both parents will always love them and that the divorce is not their fault."