What Kids Understand

Regardless of how much you protect your children from the turmoil between you and your spouse before and during divorce, in fact they probably know a lot. According to research, the degree of understanding of children depends in part on their age. Here is what some researchers have found:

Infants. Infants may notice changes in each parent’s energy level and emotional states; older infants may notice when one parent is no longer living in the home. Their reaction may come in the form of crying and fussing; changes in their sleeping patterns, and other daily routines.

What to do: Try to maintain normal schedules and routines. Reassure them of your continued presence with words and physical affection. Keep their favorite toys and blankets close to them.

Toddlers. Toddlers may notice one parent no longer lives at home. They may also try to soothe a sad or needy parent. When that happens, they make have a difficult time separating from a parent(s) or rage at them, they may regress to old behaviors that were outgrown (such as thumb sucking), or they may lose skills they previously developed (such as toilet training). Toddlers may also have trouble with sleeping patterns or experience nightmares.

What to do: Spend more time than usual with them, especially before and after they separate from you to spend time with the other parent or other activities. Demonstrate to your toddler that you want them to spend time with the other parent. Talk your toddler's caregivers about how to support them during this transition. Be understanding if they regress to old behaviors or lose skills.

Elementary School-Aged Children. Elementary Schoolers begin to understand that the marriage of their parents is ending. Often, they blame themselves for the divorce and worry about changes in their daily lives. Because this is an age where kids struggle with differentiating fantasy from reality, they may fantasize their own resolution or even experience nightmares. They may exhibit aggressive behavior towards a parent or show other signs of grief.

What to do: Repeatedly tell them the divorce is not their fault. Reassure them that both parents love them and always will, and that their needs will be met. Talk with them about their thoughts and feelings. Support an ongoing relationship with the other parent. There are many books you can read together about divorce. Gently remind them that you and your spouse will not get back together again.

Preteens and Adolescents. Preteens and adolescents may blame themselves and have difficulty accepting the changes a divorce brings to their family. They may feel abandoned, angry and unsure about how they see love, marriage and family. They could act out in uncharacteristic ways, withdraw or suddenly worry about adult matters, such as financial security.

What to do: Maintain lines of communication and honor family rituals and routines. Ideally, both parents will stay involved in their activities – know their friends, what they do, their progress at school. Avoid using teenagers as confidantes.

Ultimately, you do the very best you can. And, get advice from a therapist whose practice focuses on children in divorce.

**Adapted from “Helping Children Understand Divorce”, by Kim Leon, University of Missouri Extension, 2004.
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Asking for Support

What should I do? What can I expect? What are my rights? These are normal questions when starting down the path of divorce. And, it is normal to look in all kinds of places.

Family, friends, and acquaintances will likely happily give you advice and regale you with stories of their own divorce, the divorces of others or even those of celebrities. They will probably mean well, although their information may not be particularly correct or helpful for your divorce. That is because every divorce truly is unique, and divorce has financial, emotional, legal, and child components.

In Washington, there tend to be few "legal" answers that are hard and fast. Most of what can be answered about the divorce process comes in the form of legal procedures. However, the answers really come out of a process of negotiation. If a divorce goes to trial, the judge will make a decision that will be largely a matter of his or her discretion. In other words, there are no formulas. And, there is no substitute for looking closely at your situation in divorce and then working towards a solution that is consistent with what is important.

It can be helpful to train the people who offer you support to do just that, and not provide advice that can easily lead to confusion or worse. Go to the professionals (your lawyer, accountant, divorce coach, etc.) for advice. Your friends and family can better speak to your emotional needs.
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