Your son has a best friend whose parents are divorcing. He’s confused. “Johnny is going to have two houses now,” your son announces. “I thought people stayed married forever?”
If you’re still married when this happens, the question may well be in your child’s head: If Johnny’s parents could split up, could mine?
How do you talk to young children about other people’s divorces? Be concrete, simple and open to hearing your child’s anxieties says Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based child and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child. “It’s best to describe the mom and the dad as having been together because they loved each other and then discovering that they would get along better if they live in two separate houses,” she says. The concept of two houses is easy for kids to understand.
The closer the relationship your child has to the divorcing couple, the more anxiety he may feel about how this could affect his family life. It’s normal and natural for a child to worry about his family’s stability when a favorite aunt and uncle, or his best friend’s parents divorce. But don’t shy away from discussing your child’s anxieties. “It’s not healthy for your kids to worry silently and not have a safe place to talk about it,” says Walfish.
Appreciate that your child wants to talk openly with you about his fears, and be prepared to answer his questions honestly.
What should you do if you’re married, but you and your spouse are arguing a lot? If your child expresses concern about your fights, Walfish suggests highlighting your commitment to working through problems as a team. Use language or a reference point he can understand. You might say something like: “We are a couple who thinks it’s healthy to disagree out loud and figure out ways of resolving and working out our conflict, just like you do at the school yard.” And make sure he’s aware that you have made up.
Whether your marriage is rock solid now, or you’re actually considering divorce, tell your child that you’ll let him know if anything changes. “You can add, ‘If ever there was a time when Mom and Dad were in trouble, we would come to you and tell you the truth,” says Walfish.
Learning about divorce may be anxiety-inducing for your child. But that’s okay. The best way to respond to that anxiety is by welcoming your child’s questions and proceeding with honesty.
Laura Brienza is the author of two nonfiction books for Globe Pequot Press: Discovering Vintage Washington, DC and New York's Historic Restaurants, Inns, and Taverns. Her writing has also appeared in Flavor & The Menu, Feminine Collective, 1st Amendment Media/IndyBuild, The Date Diaries, and she is a Weekend Reporter for Obsessed With Everything. Her plays have been produced and developed by The Lark Play Development Center, the Kennedy Center, and Luna Stage, where her most recent play Old Love New Love was hailed for its "sharp writing" and "poignant moments" by The New York Times.