What to explain and how
• Explain that children are not responsible for the divorce
Tell children that the divorce is not their fault. Many children who are 4 or 5 or older believe that the divorce is the result of something that they did. For example, some children may think that parents are divorcing because the child misbehaved or received bad grades in school. Children need to be told again and again that they are not responsible for the divorce.
• Explain that the divorce is permanent
Make it very clear to children that the parents will not be getting back together. Children need to hear that they cannot rescue or restore the marriage. At some ages, children may also make up stories about their parents getting back together. It is okay to pretend, but explain that the parents are really separated. This can help the children move on and accept other changes that may come into their lives.
• Explain that the parents love them, and the parents’ love for them will not change
Help children understand that the love shared between a parent and a child is special. It is different from the love shared between a husband and wife. Husbands and wives might get divorced, but parents are always parents. Children need to know that the love parents have for them will last.
• Help children deal with the balancing act of relating to two divorced parents
Help children understand that it will be confusing to deal with their two parents. It may be hard to love both of them at once when the parents don’t love each other. Tell children that it’s OK to love both Mom and Dad. Children should not feel they have to take sides or worry about losing the love of either parent. After a divorce, children’s loyalty may become split. They may feel caught between the parents. Though the parents may never ask a child to take sides, children can still feel they have to choose one parent over the other. Many children take a long time to work through feelings of split loyalty. This is a normal process of children adjusting to their parents’ divorce. As a childcare provider, you may be able to help the child deal with these issues. You may say, “Sometimes you may feel guilty for missing Dad while you are staying with Mom. Sometimes you may feel you have to choose whether you love Mom more or Dad more. It’s OK to feel all these confused feelings and thoughts. Many children feel that way when their parents get divorced.”
• Give children a chance to express their feelings, and name the different feelings they have
Sometimes younger children do not understand what they are feeling. You can help them learn about feelings by reading books to them about divorce. You can read books about feelings, too. You also can do activities that will help children understand feelings.
• Explain that they are not alone in the way they feel
Children can feel that they are the only ones who have these troubles. They may feel that their family is the only one that has ever gone through divorce. You can help children learn that divorce happens in many families. This can help the children feel less alone. If you have divorce in your family, you could share how you feel about it. For example, you may say, "I’m sorry that this is so sad for you. I can understand. I feel sad, too. I remember when my parents divorced…” Help children understand that they are not the only ones feeling sad or angry or relieved. You may help the child understand the parents by saying, “Mom and Dad are probably sad about the divorce too. I am sure they are sorry this had to happen to you. They may wish that your family did not have to separate just like you do. How do you think they are feeling? What do you think makes them happy and what makes them sad about the divorce?” This can teach children that everyone has some of the same feelings. It is OK to have feelings and express them to others.
• Help children understand that their feelings may be different from the parents’ or siblings’ feelings
Let children know that members of the family may not always share the same feelings about the divorce. Explain to the children that it’s all right to feel differently from the parents and from brothers and sisters. A child may not understand why Mom or Dad is relieved about the divorce while the child is sad and hurt. Explain to the child that people have different feelings and that feelings are neither right nor wrong. For example, you could say, “I know you are hurt that Daddy left home. But he and Mom may have been unhappy for a long time. This divorce may be a relief for them. But it is OK for you to be sad.” Tell them that feelings may be different on different days, too.
• Check with the children often about their fears and concerns
Watch for signs that show how the children are feeling. Let them talk about their fears, concerns, and feelings about the divorce or about what is happening at home now. Give children time to think about the divorce and the changes it may have brought about. Don’t expect to have only one big discussion. Talk as many times as the issue may come up. Children will want to talk about different issues as time goes on. Take children's questions and concerns seriously and LISTEN to what they say. As one older child said, "this is gonna affect the rest of my life and I don't know if they just don't realize that, or don't care, or what, but I don't feel like I'm being heard." Children need to know that adults (caregivers, parents, and concerned others) want to help them deal with the divorce and are concerned about how the divorce is affecting them.