Since children must believe that a divorce is final before they can work through their feelings of anger, loss, and fear, parents need to help them accept that getting back together isn't realistic, says Anthony Wolf, Ph.D., author of Why Did You Have to Get a Divorce? And When Can I Get a Hamster?
SAY IT AIN'T SO
Don't assume your child understands that you and your mate will never reconcile. Once you're certain the marriage is over, tell him. Keep explanations simple for kids under 4: "Mommy and Daddy aren't getting along, so Daddy's going to move to another house. We won't live together anymore." Older children may want more details about why you're splitting up. Be honest, says Wolf, but avoid assigning blame or insulting your former spouse.
No matter how old he is, talk to your child often about the changes that have happened in his life and ask him how he's handling them. Emphasize that he wasn't responsible for the divorce, so it's not within his power to fix it. And reiterate that you and your ex are not going to get back together -- even though both of you love him.
MAINTAIN SOME DISTANCE FROM YOUR EX
Even if your breakup was amicable, avoid spending much "family time" together. Joint social outings, such as a trip to the zoo or to friends' holiday parties, are more likely to confuse your child than comfort him and will play into his reunion fantasies, says Wolf.
Ironically, lingering hostility between you and your former spouse can do the same thing, since your child could see any emotional involvement as a sign of hope. Your best course of action: Try to treat your ex with the same courtesy and respect you extend to the other adults -- such as teachers -- in your child's life.