Tender topics- Part 2: Discussing separation or divorce with preschoolers

Children experience a roller coaster of emotions when parents discuss separation or divorce. Explore children’s books that can help.

Pre-school children are exposed every day to life circumstances that change their world including death, a sudden move, a new teacher or upheaval in their family structure.  Figuring out the best way to explain and discuss “tender topics” with young children can be a difficult decision for parents and caregivers. Questions that may come up include, When should I talk with them? How much should I say?  How do I handle strong emotion? Who can assist me?  It is important to think about these discussions as a part of everyday life, in your family and in the lives of young children. When discussing the topic of separation or divorce with a child it is natural to want to protect them from the stress and sadness that you might be experiencing.

You may want to consult your pediatrician, a counselor, a friend or clergy for advice before you open up this tender topic with a child.  There is no one way or best time to break the news but it can help to be prepared. According to Michigan State University Extension, there are many things to consider when approaching the topic of separation and divorce with children.

Do your homework.  Consider the age and stage of the child you will be talking with.  Having this information can assist you in determining how to approach the topic and what to expect from the child.  An infant will not understand what is happening, but may react to general household upheaval through general irritability or fussiness.  Toddlers live in the present and don’t have a grasp of the future, but they will often react strongly to a change in routine.  Preschoolers often blame themselves for a breakup or separation.  Know your child and anticipate their questions.  Have answers at the ready for basic questions; “Where will we live?”, “Will we still see Daddy?”, “Do you still love me?” and  “Will we go to the same school?”

Prepare your child for any upcoming changes that may take place.  Be as truthful as possible.  Children don’t need to know everything about the situation, but rather just what applies to them. Most children want to know how this will change their everyday life. It is equally important to let them know what won’t be changing, so they can rely on familiar routines and structure.

It is important throughout every discussion about separation or divorce that the child is reassured that this is not his or her fault.  Many children, even after multiple assurances, continue to believe that it is somehow their fault. It is helpful to have both parents present for the discussion if possible. Keep blame, shame, finger pointing, anger and accusations out of the discussion.  Instead, stick to the facts.  Remind your children that you will always love them and take care of them. You are not divorcing your children!

Be prepared for strong reaction.  Not all children will react in a similar fashion. Accept their feelings and assure them that it is OK to be upset, sad, angry or worried. Help your child put their feelings into words.  Watch for cues and follow their lead.  Be a good listener! The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends using children’s books to assist in discussing the tender topic of divorce. Some favorites include The Family Book by Todd Parr and Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. Your local librarian can assist you in finding books that are appropriate for the age and stage of your preschooler or young child.

Children expect their parents and caregivers to be an expert on all topics. You won’t have all the answers!  Explore the many resources available to help you talk to your child about separation or divorce.  For more information on caregiving or family issues that affect you visit, MSU Extension.

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