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.
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.