You and your partner have both decided to divorce, but have either of you given any thoughts on how to break the news to your children? Separation and divorce can be difficult and confusing for the parents involved, but it is even more so for a child.
President of the Malaysian Mental Health Association, Dato’ Dr. Andrew Mohanraj mentions that divorce can inflict psychological distress on children. Younger children will manifest their anxiety by bed-wetting, throwing tantrums, and refusing to go to school. Older children, however, will act out by becoming more independent, aggressive, or even rebellious.
Here are suggestions on how you can discuss divorce with your children of different ages.
With limited cognitive capabilities, children of this age may observe their parents not getting along, but are unable to grasp why. One minute, a child is living in a nuclear unit, and the next, they find themselves living out of a suitcase, shuttling between two households on a bi-weekly basis.
Expect temper tantrums when letting your child sleep at the other party’s house. Help ease the transition by allowing your child to bring along their favorite blanket or toy for a sense of familiarity. Each parent should also try to establish similar routines in both households, limiting confusion.
They may not understand, but you can say “Daddy will be moving to a different house tomorrow. I know you will miss him, which is why you will have a sleepover with him this weekend. You can bring your favourite truck along with you so you can take his place as your own. Mummy will see you again as soon as you’ve had your breakfast on Monday”.
Pre-schoolers may be able to express themselves better, but will still have problems processing the entire ordeal. A curious pre-schooler will have questions as to why one parent isn’t home yet. Or why one parent isn’t present at a family event. Be prepared for difficult questions, and keep answers as short and precise as possible.
They may also experience separation anxiety and regress by constantly waking up at night or going back to their bottle. Talk to your child often especially if there is a change in behavior since they may be emotionally overwhelmed.
Start by saying “You will see Mummy and Daddy on different days and at different homes. You may miss Daddy when you’re with me, but you’ll still be able to see him. You will have your own room but still go to the same school. The best thing is, having two homes mean you will have twice the fun!”.
Primary School Children
Divorce is a big word for children of schooling age. Even though they may look like they’re coping well, they may also be facing internal conflicts of their own.
A child may become overly attached to a parent, thinking they should pick sides. No matter the reason, avoid finger-pointing and let your child know the decision was mutual. Keep reassuring them should you notice they are having a difficult time.
You may explain with: “Mummy and Daddy will no longer be together and will not be staying in the same house anymore. We know that it makes you sad when you see us fight. Sometimes, it’s best for two people to live apart. We will always share the same love for you regardless of where Mummy and Daddy will be”.
Teens have a better grasp of understanding divorce. They may have already expected it and might have confided with their peers before you could even have a word with them. Either way, the divorce may still be hard to deal with, especially after hearing it from their parents themselves.
We often assume teens are capable of coping with their emotions. Ensure your teen has a support system around them so that they have someone to confide in when needed. Let your teen know that you have their best interests in mind, and give them space to express their feelings.
You could say: “You may already know that Mummy and Daddy aren’t getting along well. We’ve decided that going our separate ways would be best for all of us. You may or may not be happy with how things will change. If you feel this is too much, and you’re afraid to talk to us, please know that you can always talk to your Grandma and Uncle instead”.
Regardless of your children’s age, do not include unnecessary information about your divorce, never make them take sides, and stay as civil as possible. Reach out for help as soon as you see signs of depression or even regression in your child. Unknown to most, a divorce may hit children just as hard as it hits you. The transition will be one of the biggest hurdles for your child, but they may thank you one day for doing it right.