For many couples, divorce is a necessary reality which can’t be avoided. It’s not easy, it’s hurtful, and it’s definitely complicated. With kids involved, the situation can be even more painful and confusing. Young kids have a much harder time understanding divorce and separation than older kids, and emotions can run extremely high. No one wants to put their children through that, but sometimes it’s what is best for the family in the long run. While divorcing parents know that their choice to separate is not due to anything their children did, or didn’t do, kids almost always feel like they are to blame.
The younger your children are, the harder they will take the news of divorce. Parent separation is something that is incredibly difficult for them to make sense of cognitively. Young kids can only see the situation from their own perspective, and there is a very fine line between fantasy and reality. If you have young kids, you might know that they believe in this power of “magical thinking.” They believe that their thoughts can cause real events to happen. For example, if they were really mad at mommy for not giving them dessert and wished bad things would happen to her, then they would feel extremely guilty if something actually did happen to her, believing that their thoughts caused it. Magical thinking is a natural part of childhood development and it helps the child cope with reality and feel secure.
WANTING TO “FIX” MOM & DAD’S BROKEN RELATIONSHIP
In the situation of divorce, a young child will look for something that makes sense to them. Since they have a hard time thinking outside of themselves, they will come to the conclusion that the divorce was caused by something they did, or didn’t do. Once they put the blame upon themselves, they can then start to find a solution to help “fix” mommy and daddy’s relationship. Their magical thinking could cause them to think that not doing their chores made mommy and daddy angry, which is now causing them to divorce.
EMOTIONS DURING DIVORCE
Young kids go through the same exact grieving process as adults, but sometimes on a greater emotional scale. At first they won’t accept the reality, and then they will move on to strong feelings of anger and bargaining. At this point, many kids will try to bring their parents back together and fix the situation. This is very normal for where they are at in their development. They feel guilty since they believe they caused the separation, so then they must find a way to fix it on their own.
“IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT” BREAKING IT DOWN
There are several things you can do to help avoid your child feeling blame for the divorce. When you and your partner first tell your child about it, you need to keep in mind their perspective. Everything you say to them will automatically be taken in their own perspective, and they won’t be able to see other’s viewpoints. The best thing you can do is break it down into a few shorter conversations. One long conversation will be confusing and overwhelming for young kids. Make sure to tell them that it is not their fault. Do not assume that they will know that, based on what you tell them about the separation. Tell them generally (do not go into specific details) about why the separation is happening, including telling them that it is an adult problem. You need to be very clear about the reality, so that your child does not begin to feel guilty and fantasize about bringing you two back together.
MAKE THEM FEEL SAFE (WORDS & ACTIONS)
It is possible to separate from a partner and minimize the hurt and guilt for your child. It may take a lot of patience and understanding, but there is hope for a peaceful co-parenting future for your child. Through out the process, make sure to reflect your child’s feelings and listen to what they have to say. Tell them it is okay to be sad or mad, and provide them with choices for the future. If they feel like they are involved in the planning and process, then they won’t feel like they are being abandoned by one parent or the other.
Divorce is painful, there’s no way around that. Being open and patient with your child can help them understand and move past that pain, so that everyone involved can move toward a better future.
Originally published on Moms.
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