Divorce, unfortunately, has become a reality for nearly half of the marriages performed in the United States, but its regularity doesn't make it any easier for children to accept. Divorce often carries the same emotional weight for children as a death in the family or an unexpected relocation. Preparing a child for the realities of a divorce is never going to be an easy process for any parent. The fear of causing permanent emotional scars or alienating a child for life are very legitimate, so both parents need to be in agreement before having any talks about divorce with their children.
One of the most important ways to prepare your child for divorce is to make sure you're prepared first. There are a number of self-help guides available that deal with the specific issues surrounding children and divorce. Marriage counselors should also be able to provide parents with straightforward advice on breaking the news to younger children.
Even informal conversations with other divorced couples may prove enlightening. Ask specific questions about their first approaches and the concerns their children expressed. There may also be support groups for children of divorce, which may have some brochures available.
Many parents facing a divorce worry about the psychological and emotional damage their actions will cause to a child. The truth is, no matter how carefully you broach the subject or how many euphemisms you use, news of this magnitude is going to cause some emotional damage to children. It can't be avoided. The good news is that most children are amazingly resilient and better at coping than we think. Preparing your child for the first divorce discussion may simply be a matter of finding the right time and place.
One way to broach the subject of divorce with a child is to think on his or her age level. Terms like legal separation, divorce, or custody may sound foreign to a younger child, but a five year old understands friendships and arguments and visits. You may want to explain that Mommy and Daddy are trying to be friends, but they need to live in different houses so they can stop arguing about things. Sometimes you'll get to visit Daddy and sometimes you'll stay with Mommy. Smaller children may not even see these separate visits as anything more than living in two different houses.
Another difficult issue surrounding divorce is the feeling of responsibility. Older children who have witnessed fights between their parents may feel a certain amount of personal responsibility. If they hadn't been born or if they hadn't asked for so many toys or whatever, Mom and Dad wouldn't be arguing about money so much.
As a parent, you'll need to reassure older children that the problems between Mom and Dad are not their fault. Apologize for anything a child might have accidentally overheard during a heated discussion. As painful as a divorce may be, witnessing more years of physical or emotional abuse can be even more damaging to a child.
Above all, be as honest with your child about your impending divorce as you can be. Explain the custodial terms in plain language: "You'll be living with me in this house for the school year, and Daddy will pick you up on Friday nights to stay at his house for the weekend. During the summer, you can stay at my house or Dad's house. Sometimes you'll have Christmas with me and sometimes you'll have Easter at Dad's house." Children often want to hear what will remain the same for them, such as school attendance and participation in sports or other interests.
There may be some other difficult issues surrounding divorce that require significant sensitivity. If a parent is denied custodial rights, the other parent may have to broach the subject carefully with a child. You might say, "I know you miss seeing Mommy, but right now she's not healthy and she needs to get better before she can visit you." Supervised visitation can be a stressful time for both parents and children, so you may have to explain why that nice lady has to be in the room when your child spends time with Daddy. Younger children can often cope with simpler explanations, so remember to stay on their level and answer their questions honestly.