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When Parents Divorce

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"Mommy and daddy are getting a divorce."

To children, those fateful words can mean a range of things, depending on their age. A baby or toddler won't understand them at all but may pick up on your somber tone and be confused or frightened by it; an older child may worry that she'll wind up like a friend at school who sees her dad only rarely, or that she'll have to move to a smaller house and share a bedroom with her little sister.

While it's just about impossible to put a positive spin on such a negative event, there's a lot parents can do to ease the difficult transition from intact family to divided one. Target your initial broaching of the topic to your child's age (if you have kids of widely differing ages, you might consider talking to each of them separately). And then be prepared to have your child come back with more questions as the years pass and she comes to understand the situation more fully. Some guidelines for talking to kids of various ages when a marriage splits apart.

Babies

While you may think that infants are too young to be affected by divorce, they're surprisingly intuitive. Even a 6-week-old can sense that his routine has been altered —he no longer sees both parents daily, he's suddenly eating at a different time or sleeping in a new room. Schedule changes can be particularly anxiety-provoking for babies. "They need structure and continuity to feel safe and to trust that all is right with the world," says M. Gary Neuman, author of Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way.

It's least disruptive to keep an infant at home and have the noncustodial parent visit frequently for short periods—an hour a day, for example, or two hours three times a week. "For the first three months of my son's life, I had his dad come to my house whenever he wanted to see the baby," says a mom in Chagrin Falls, OH, who split from her child's father before giving birth. If the baby must move back and forth between households, try to maintain the same naptime, feeding schedule, and bedtime rituals in each place. While you needn't re-create the nursery down to the Pooh Bear nightlight, purchasing two sets of identical sheets or bumpers can make an infant feel more at ease. Always make sure any favorite blankie or stuffed animal travels from house to house.

An infant can sense if you're depressed or angry and may also interpret hostility, sadness, or withdrawal as a reflection of your feelings for him. This can erode his sense of security and confidence, so it's crucial to deal with your own personal demons. "See a counselor, a rabbi, a minister; join a divorce support group; lean on your friends," advises Neuman. Be extra demonstrative with your baby, both physically and emotionally—you can't hug him too many times a day.

Then be prepared for some fallout: Babies whose parents are going through a divorce may cry more often and sleep less soundly than those living in intact households. This is a natural reaction to stress and should subside within a couple of months, after they've adjusted to the new routine. They may also experience more severe separation anxiety (which typically crops up at 8 or 9 months). "When something is taken away from you, in this case a parent, it's natural to want to hold on tight to what you have left," says Arnold Stolberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. Until his anxiety eases, every time you leave your child with his other parent, be sure to reassure him that you're coming back. While he may not understand the words, he'll pick up on your soothing tone. The good news about splitting up while your child is a baby is that, all other things being equal, he may ultimately suffer fewer adverse effects from a divorce than an older child, since he won't remember his parents ever having been together. 

Toddlers

A toddler isn't old enough to understand abstract concepts like "marriage" and "divorce," so you'll need to keep things concrete when broaching the subject. A simple statement, such as "Mommy and Daddy make each other sad and are going to live in different places, but you make us very happy" will do. At this age, a child's main concern is how the breakup will affect her routine, so explain the situation as specifically as possible. "Mommy will live here in this house, and Daddy will live at Grandpa's house" is easier for a toddler to grasp than "Daddy is moving to Arizona." And don't forget to reassure your child that no matter where everyone lives, you and your former spouse will still be her mommy and daddy and will love her as much as always. "When my husband and I divorced, he moved to Oregon for a year. I wanted him to have a close relationship with our daughter, who was eighteen months at the time, so I made sure to talk about him frequently and to tell her how much he loves her," says one Chicago mom.

Just because toddlers can't always verbalize their emotions doesn't mean they aren't feeling them. They may become sad and withdrawn or act out their anxiety by hitting or biting. If you sense your child's upset, try to give voice to her feelings: "You look sad. I wonder if it's been tough for you not to see Daddy all the time" or "How do you feel about moving to a new house? That can be difficult."

If aggression becomes a problem, explain that it's okay to be upset that Mommy or Daddy has moved out but that it's not okay to hit. Then try to redirect the anger by encouraging your child to say "I'm mad" or to scribble an "angry" picture or pound a play hammer.

As with infants, it's wise to allow your child to have frequent visits with the noncustodial parent. Every day for an hour and a half is ideal, but two or three visits a week may be more practical. Again, young kids may have a difficult time warming up to the noncustodial parent if they're out of touch for more than a few days. If your toddler balks at going to your former spouse's house, talk about the fun she'll have there. 

Preschoolers

Between the ages of 3 and 5, kids are magical thinkers. Their feelings and actions are so powerful, they may fear that Mommy or Daddy left because of something they said or did. "One four-year-old girl I counseled was certain that her parents wouldn't have divorced if she and her brothers hadn't argued so much," says Neuman. This kind of guilt not only prompts kids to feel bad about themselves, but it may also make them anxious about the future, he says. "If they can cause their family to break up, what other horrible things might they do?" Reassure your child that the divorce wasn't his fault, that it happened simply because Mommy and Daddy are too sad together.

Preschoolers often worry that the custodial parent will move away too, leaving them to fend for themselves. They may try to act like superkids—eating all their vegetables, putting their toys away, going to bed cheerfully—figuring that you'll be more likely to stick around if they don't make waves. When Susan Rapaport and her husband split up four years ago, her son, Joseph, who was 5 at the time, would get excessively upset whenever anyone reprimanded him. "So anytime I had to call him on something, I made sure to add, 'I want you with me always, and I'm never going to leave you,'" says the Chevy Chase, MD, mother of three.

Similarly, preschoolers may become overly fearful when you go to work or even run a quick errand, assuming that you're gone for good. Before leaving, be as specific as possible about when you're coming back: "I'll be home in time to feed you dinner" is more reassuring than "I'll see you later."

Kids this age may also react to a divorce by regressing. Because their coping skills aren't well developed, they may use baby talk, demand a pacifier, or need to cuddle a beloved blankie in order to comfort themselves during stressful times. If this occurs, help your child put words to the situation, and be sure to shower him with extra love and attention. Let him know that his feelings matter and that he can depend on you to be there for him, says Neuman. Once things settle down and he adjusts to the divorce, his babyish behavior should disappear within two or three months. 

Grade-Schoolers

Older kids are going to have many of the same concerns as younger ones. While you can use more sophisticated language with them, your general message about the breakup should be simple and straightforward: "Mom and Dad weren't happy together, but we love you all the same and always will."

Like younger kids, school-age children may blame themselves for the split (although they may not admit it), but for a different reason. "It's less threatening for them to think that they somehow caused the divorce than to think that they have no control over bad things that happen," says Stolberg. So be sure to reiterate—as often as necessary—that Mom or Dad didn't leave because of anything they said or did.

Because older children have mastered the concept of time, it's easier to explain to them how the divorce will affect their routine. One approach: Buy a calendar and draw a blue star on the days they'll be with Dad and a yellow one on the days they'll stay with Mom. "If children know in advance where they will be sleeping, they feel more in control," says Stolberg.

Older kids hate to stand out from the crowd, so they may worry that the divorce makes them different. To help them feel less isolated, point out other people—from rock stars to neighbors—who are divorced or whose parents have split. Then ask if there are specific issues that are bothering them—and do your best to remedy the situation.

Instead of expressing their anxiety at home, some grade-schoolers act out at school—fighting with friends, disrupting the classroom. Or they internalize their distress and suddenly develop chronic headaches or stomachaches. Let your child's teachers, babysitters, and coaches know what's going on in her life, and keep in close contact with them to monitor how she's coping.

If you notice that your child is having a tough time, try to get her to open up. Ann Croll of Rye, NY, whose daughter was 6 when she and her husband separated, broaches touchy topics when she and her daughter are on short rides in the car. "She knows, say, that after the next turn we have only half a block to go before we get to school, and she can stop thinking about it."

No matter how old your children are, it's crucial to avoid trashing your ex in front of them. A child sees herself as an extension of her parents. So if you criticize a child's dad, in her eyes you're criticizing her too, says Stolberg. Denigrating your former spouse also makes it impossible for your child to love him without feeling as if she's betraying you. It's emotionally vital for kids to have a good relationship with both of their parents—whether or not they live under the same roof.

Children of Divorce: Do they grow up happy?

Divorce can deeply trouble kids, triggering a range of reactions from anger and depression to behavioral problems at school. But what's the long-range prognosis? Are they doomed to carry lifelong emotional baggage? Not necessarily, according to the recent book For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered,by E. Mavis Hetherington, Ph.D., and John Kelly. Hetherington looked at more than 1,400 families, some for as long as 24 years (roughly half of whom were divorced). Within six years, 75 to 80 percent of kids whose parents had split were as happy and well adjusted as those from intact families. "The other twenty percent developed some kind of psychological, emotional, or academic problem, compared to ten percent of the nondivorced group," she says.

Divorce's Downside

A less optimistic picture was presented by Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. In interviews with 59 divorced families over 25 years, she found that almost all grew up with fears about being able to sustain a happy relationship. Eventually—often with therapy or the help of a supportive spouse—most were able to compensate. "But growing into adulthood was definitely much harder for them," she says.

Many experts consider Hetherington's work to be more scientifically valid because she included a control group from the start (Wallerstein added hers later), had a larger sample size, and conducted objective personality assessments. "Dr. Wallerstein's study is very insightful and useful in learning what happens after difficult divorces," says Andrew Cherlin, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. "But the families she interviewed were more dysfunctional than the average divorcing family." On the other hand, says Norval Glenn, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Texas in Austin, Wallerstein's in-depth interviews may have uncovered pain and anguish that Hetherington's standardized tests wouldn't have detected.

The Bottom Line

There's no doubt that children from broken homes are twice as likely to grow up and have marriages that end in divorce. But most experts agree that divorce itself isn't necessarily a negative sentence for children. Parents who remain loving (but firm) and consistent throughout their divorce will dramatically increase their odds of raising happy, well-adjusted kids.

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