Environmental Helping Children
Sara Gable, State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies
Kelly Cole, Extension Associate
hen parents decide to parents to think carefully about how basic needs will be met, that someone
W divorce, they typically have
been through a series of
events that have led them to this deci-
they will tell their children and what
they will tell them. When possible, the
entire family should meet together so
will still ﬁx breakfast in the morning,
help them with their homework, and
tuck them into bed at night. Children
sion. Whether or not children are aware that both parents can answer children’s also need to know that their relation-
of parents’ decisions depends on many questions. This strategy may also help ship with BOTH parents will continue, if
things, including parents’ behaviors and parents to avoid blaming each other for possible. In the face of so many
children’s experiences. In some fami- the divorce. The following tips might changes, children also need to hear
lies, husbands and wives may argue make this a smoother process: what will remain the same. Parents can
frequently in front of the children, leav- ✔ Set aside time to meet as a family reassure their children through words
ing children to suspect that something ✔ Plan ahead of time what to tell and actions that their love will continue
is going on. In other families, parents children despite the changes in routine family
may talk quietly about their differences ✔ Stay calm life.
without the children ever knowing. And ✔ Plan to meet again During these family discussions, it is
in other families, parents may argue important for parents to tell children
sometimes and quietly handle their dif- What to tell children that the divorce is ﬁnal and avoid giving
ferences at other times. Regardless of Remember that divorce is confusing children false hopes that the parents
the type of adult arguments and inter- for children. When you ﬁrst talk with will reunite. Parents can also use this
actions that children experience, when children, limit your discussion to the time to tell children that the divorce is
parents decide to divorce, children most important and most immediate not their fault. Most children older than
need to know. issues; children can become confused 4 or 5 years commonly believe that the
The purpose of this guide is to help if they are given too much information divorce is the result of something that
you understand the thoughts and feel- at once. Children they did. For instance, when asked why
ings that children may have when their need to hear parents divorce, some children may
parents decide to divorce and to pro- that their explain that parents are divorcing
vide some tips for talking with chil- because the
dren about divorce. children misbe-
Talking with children received bad
about divorce grades in school.
Children’s reactions to parental Children need
divorce are related to how parents repeated reas-
inform them of their decision. surance
Because of this, it is important for (see page 4)
Published by MU Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia GH 6600
Children’s understanding of divorce by age group
Children’s understanding of parental divorce depends on their age. It is important for parents to know what thoughts and
feelings children of different ages may be having so that they can modify their own behaviors to help children adjust to the
What children Children’s thoughts What parents can do for
understand and feelings children
Infants • Infants notice • More irritability, such as crying • Keep normal schedules and routines.
changes in parents’ and fussing.
energy level and • Reassure infants of your continued pres-
emotional state. • Changes in sleeping, napping, ence with physical affection and loving
and other daily routines. words.
• Older infants notice
when one parent is • If a new adult moves into the • Keep children’s favorite toys, blankets, or
no longer living in home, older infants may be ner- stuffed animals close at hand.
the home. vous and fearful.
• Gradually introduce older infants to new
Toddlers • Recognize that one • May have difﬁculty separating • Spend more time with children when pre-
parent no longer from parents. paring to separate (e.g., arrive 10 to 15
lives at home. minutes earlier than usual when you take
• May express anger toward par- your child to child care).
• May express empa- ent.
thy toward others, • Provide physical and verbal reassurance
such as a parent • May lose some of the skills they of your love.
who is feeling sad. have developed, like toilet train-
ing. • Show understanding of child’s distress;
recognize that, given time and support,
• Toddlers may show some of the old behaviors (thumbsucking) will disap-
behaviors that they “grew out pear and newly developed skills (toilet
of,” such as thumbsucking. training) will reappear.
• Sleeping and naptime routines • Talk with other important adults and care-
may change. givers about how to support your child
during this transition time.
• Older toddlers may have night-
Preschool and • Preschoolers recog- • Will likely blame themselves for • Repeatedly tell children that they are not
early elemen- nize that one parent the divorce. responsible for the divorce.
tary no longer lives at
home. • May worry about the changes in • Reassure children of how their needs will
their daily lives. be met and of who will take care of them.
• Elementary school
children begin to • Have more nightmares. • Talk with children about their thoughts and
understand that feelings; be sensitive to children’s fears.
divorce means their • May exhibit signs of sadness
parents will no and grieving because of the • Plan a schedule of time for children to
longer be married absence of one parent. spend with their other parent. Be support-
and live together, ive of children’s ongoing relationship with
and that their par- • Preschoolers may be aggres- the other parent.
ents no longer love sive and angry toward the par-
each other. ent they “blame.” • Read books together about children and
divorce (see list at end of guide).
• Because preschoolers struggle
with the difference between fan- • Gently, and matter-of-factly, remind chil-
tasy and reality, children may dren that the divorce is ﬁnal and that par-
have rich fantasies about par- ents will not get back together again.
ents getting back together.
2 Human Environmental Sciences Extension
Children’s understanding of divorce by age group (continued)
What children Children’s thoughts What parents can do for
understand and feelings children
Preteens and • Understand what • May feel abandoned by the • Maintain open lines of communication
adolescents divorce means but parent who moves out of the with children; reassure children of your
may have difﬁculty house. love and continued involvement in their
accepting the reality lives.
of the changes it • May withdraw from long-time
brings to their family. friends and favorite activities. • Whenever possible, both parents need to
stay involved in children’s lives, know chil-
• Although thinking at • May act out in uncharacteristic dren’s friends, what they do together, and
a more complex ways (start using bad lan- keep up with children’s progress at school
level, still may guage, become aggressive or and in other activities.
blame themselves rebellious).
for the divorce. • Honor family rituals and routines (Sunday
• May feel angry and unsure dinner, weeknight homework time, gro-
about their own beliefs con- cery shopping together, watch favorite
cerning love, marriage, and television shows or movies as a family).
• If you need to increase children’s house-
• May experience a sense of hold responsibilities, assign chores and
growing up too soon. tasks that are age-appropriate (help with
laundry, housecleaning, yardwork, meal
• May start to worry about “adult preparations); show appreciation for chil-
matters,” such as the family’s dren’s contributions.
• Avoid using teenage children as conﬁ-
• May feel obligated to take on dants; plan special time for yourself with
more adult responsibilities in adult friends and family members.
• Tell children who will be attending special
occasions such as sporting events and
graduation ceremonies, especially if you
plan to take a new romantic partner.
What I need from my mom and dad
✔ I need both of you to stay involved in my life. ✔ Please communicate directly with my other parent
Even if you don’t live close by, please write letters, so that I don’t have to send messages back and
make phone calls, and ask me lots of questions forth. I want you to talk with each other so that the
about who I spend time with and what I like and don’t messages are communicated the right way and so
like to do. When you don’t stay involved in my life, I that I don’t feel like I am going to mess up.
feel like I’m not important and that you don’t really
✔ When talking about my other parent, please
say only nice things, or don’t say anything at
✔ Please stop ﬁghting and work hard to get all. When you say mean, unkind things about my
along with each other. Try to agree on mat- other parent, I feel like you are putting me down and
ters related to me and my needs. When you expecting me to take your side.
ﬁght about me, I think that I did something
✔ Please remember that I want both of you
wrong and I feel guilty.
to be a part of my life. I count on my mom
✔ I want to love you both and enjoy the time that and dad to raise me, to teach me what is
I spend with each of you. Please support me and important, and to help me when I have prob-
the time that I spend with each of you. If you act lems.
jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides
and love one parent more than the other.
(continued from page 1)
Using books to talk express their emotions and discuss
from parents that they are not responsi- with children about issues that they may not otherwise be
ble for the divorce. divorce comfortable talking about. Parents also
Remember to ask children about Children’s books about divorce can may beneﬁt from these books by learn-
their fears and concerns. Give children help them work through the issues they ing common things that children of
time to think about the divorce and the face. Reading divorce experience.
changes ahead. Meet again as a family books can
to talk about new questions and to give chil- It’s not your fault, KoKo Bear.
reassure children of your ongoing dren a way Vicky Lansky (1998) Book Peddlers.
involvement in their lives. Take your to This book is designed for
children’s questions and concerns seri- parents and children ages
ously and LISTEN to what they say. As 3 to 5 years to read together.
stated by one child, “this is gonna Each page provides a large pic-
affect the rest of my life and I don’t ture to show what is hap-
know if they just don’t realize that, or pening in the story and
don’t care, or what, but I don’t feel like includes messages for parents.
I’m being heard.” Children need to The messages for parents
know that parents recognize the impact help make a connection
of divorce on children’s lives. By listen- between the story
ing to children’s thoughts and feelings and what
about the divorce, parents demonstrate happens
their ongoing care and concern. to children
in real families. KoKo Bear
Sibling relationships in divorced families
When parents divorce, brothers and sisters their family and they take these negative feelings
may begin to interact differently. While some sib- out on their siblings. Some siblings also engage
lings become closer at this time, others may in more conﬂict because they are competing for
argue more and become emotionally distant. It is their parents’ attention.
difficult to predict how children will respond in Parents may be able to reduce their children’s
any particular family. rivalry by talking with them, listening to them, and
The emotional stress that parents feel following spending some time alone with each child. Par-
divorce may temporarily reduce the amount of ents also need to realize that younger siblings
attention they are able to give their children. As a may have an easier time expressing their confu-
result, some children turn to one another for nur- sion than their older siblings.
turance and support. Because siblings experi- Therefore, parents should be sure to talk to the
ence many of the same emotions, they are able to older siblings even if they do not seem upset. It is
understand each other’s feelings and concerns also important for parents to encourage children
and to reassure each other. Other children, how- to continue rituals that were established before
ever, may engage in more conﬂict with their sib- the divorce so they will have some feelings of
lings. These children may feel confused and continuity and stability.
angry about the changes that are occurring in
We extend our appreciation to Amanda Kowal, assistant professor of human development and family studies,
for her insights on sibling relationships in divorced families.
University of Missouri-Columbia 4
faces situations that help him
learn what divorce means, and
that he is not to blame for the
divorce. He is helped to talk
about his feelings, and is
told that he is still loved by expand on the
both parents. Daily events text to show that everybody Places to look for
that children and parents lives in a situation that is unique. Chil- help
may have to face differently due to dren will gain an understanding that GENERAL PARENTING INFORMATION
divorce are presented and problems they are not alone in having their par- ParentLink, 1-800-552-8522. Pro-
are solved through talking, sharing, and ents divorce and that there is more vides research-based information to
special activities. than one way that problems may be assist parents.
faced or solved. Pictures of daily life Web Connections
Dinosaurs Divorce: A guide for events and hassles show the reader http://outreach.missouri.edu/cooper/fok/
changing families. Laurene Krasney that situations can get better! Provides linkages to lists of books,
Brown and Marc Brown (1986) Little organizations and web sites for par-
Brown and Company. This award-win- Pre-Teen Pressures: Divorce. ents. These resources are provided as
ning book is designed for parents and Debra Goldentyer (1998). Steck- a service and do not constitute
young school-aged children to read Vaughn Company. This book, written for endorsement. They are periodically
together — at least the ﬁrst few times. pre-teen readers, covers a wide range reviewed and updated.
Stories are presented in a cartoon strip of issues, some of which may be
pattern and organized around topics applicable to your family situation. SINGLE PARENTS
that are recognized as important for Because this book deals with a wide Parents Without Partners (PWP
children experiencing the divorce of range of topics, you should read it international headquarters), 401 N.
their parents. Issues such as why par- before going through it with your chil- Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611
ents divorce, living with one parent, dren. This book discusses common (312-644-6610). Provides free referrals
having two homes, telling friends, par- changes that take place for divorcing to local PWP chapters, which offer
ents’ new partners, and celebrating families. A variety of families are pre- social and educational opportunities for
special occasions are discussed. Solu- sented to show that there are many single parents. Membership fees vary.
tions to problems that may come up are reasons why marriages end (affairs, http://parentswithoutpartners.org
seen through the actions of the violence/abuse and alcoholism). A vari- Single Parent Resource Center, 31
dinosaur children and their parents. A ety of family stories are used to show E. 28th Street, Suite 200, New York,
table of contents and a glossary are that individuals adjust differently, make NY 10016-9998 (212-951-7030). Offers
useful for children who may chose to different decisions and move on to new free referrals for childcare and legal
re-read speciﬁc stories. The artwork is relationships at different speeds. Pho- services, as well as information about
very appealing to children. tographs are used and include colorful how to start a single-parent support
titles. Divorce is presented clearly as an group.
How do I feel about: My parents’ event that is shared by many families http://singleparentresources.com
Divorce. Julia Cole (1997) Copper who deal with it in a variety of ways. National Organization of Single
Beach Books. This book is written for The children’s roles in their adjustment Mothers, Inc., P.O. Box 68, Midland,
older school-aged children with some to divorce are emphasized. NC 28107 (704-888-5437). Provides
reading skills, but should be read at (We extend our thanks to Joan Turner, Brett free advice on how to start support
Dayton, and Maridith Jackson for their careful
least the ﬁrst time with a parent so that groups and offers referrals to other sin-
review of the children’s books.)
the child may ask questions. The table gle parents nationwide. Publishes Sin-
of contents outlines the topics covered For more ideas on talking with gle Mother magazine (bi-monthly).
in the book: what is divorce? why does children about divorce, see MU guide One-year individual membership:
it happen? difficult feelings, and feeling GH 6602, Activities for Helping Chil- $12.97.
O.K. A variety of photographs of differ- dren Deal with Divorce. (Call 1-800- http://www.singlemothers.org
ent children and cartoon illustrations 292-096 to order a copy.)
University of Missouri-Columbia 5
National Congress for Fathers nationwide. Offers a variety of hard-to- References
and Children (NCFC), P.O. Box ﬁnd books, tapes, manuals and other Amato, P. 1994. Life-span adjust-
171675, Kansas City, MO 66117 materials about stepfamilies. One-year ment of children to their parents’
(1-800-733-3237). Instructs single membership, including magazine sub- divorce. In Children and Divorce, 4 (1).
fathers on custody, child-support and scription and book: $35. Packard Foundation.
paternity issues. Publishes a 132-page http://www.stepfam.org Behrman, R.E. and L. Quinn. 1994.
manual and a quarterly newsletter The Stepfamily Network, Inc., 555 Children and Divorce: Overview and
called Network. Also has a list of Bryant Street #361, Palo Alto, CA analysis. In Children and Divorce, 4 (1).
NCMC advisers nationwide. One-year 94301 (1-800-487-1073). Provides Packard Foundation.
membership: $50. information on stepfamily resources Blakeslee, Ives, S. D. Fassler and M.
http://ncfc.net/ncfc and support groups. It is a non-proﬁt Lash. 1994. The Divorce Workbook.
National Fatherhood Initiative, organization dedicated to helping step- Burlington, VT: Waterfront Books.
One Bank Street, Suite 160, family members achieve harmony and Cummings, E.M. and P. Davis. 1994.
Gaithersburg, MD 20878 (1-800-790- mutual respect. Children and Marital Conﬂict. N.Y.: Guil-
3237). Offers a quarterly newsletter http://stepfamily.net ford Press.
and a catalog of books and videos The Stepfamily Foundation, 333 Iowa State University Extension.
focusing on fatherhood issues. One- West End Avenue, New York, NY Divorce Matters.
year membership: $35. 10023 (212-877-3244). Offers work- Mulroy, M., C.Z. Malley, R.M.
http://www.fatherhood.org shops on stepfamily dynamics, holds Sabatelli and R. Waldron. 1995. Parent-
individual and family counseling ses- ing Apart: Strategies for effective co-
STEPPARENTS sions over the telephone and in person, parenting. Storrs, CT: University of
The Stepfamily Association of and publishes lists of books, audio- Connecticut Cooperative Extension
America, Inc., 650 J Street, Suite 205, tapes and videotapes for stepfamilies. System.
Lincoln, NE 68508 (1-800-735-0329). One-year membership: $70. (Counsel- Stevenson, M.R., and K.N. Black.
Publishes a quarterly magazine, Step- ing costs are extra.) 1996. How Divorce Affects Offspring: A
families, and an 89-page book, Step- http://www.stepfamily.org research approach. Boulder, CO: West-
families Stepping Ahead. Provides view Press.
referrals to more than 60 local chapters
This guide is a revision and update of The Effects of Divorce on Children, originally written by Karen DeBord, former state
specialist in human development and family studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
For more information on this subject and many others, visit the MU Extension Publications web site at:
s Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension Work Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department
OUTREACH & EXTENSION of Agriculture. Ronald J. Turner, Director, Cooperative Extension, University of Missouri and Lincoln University, Columbia, MO 65211.
s University Outreach and Extension does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability or status
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need this publication in an alternative format, write ADA Officer, Extension and Agricultural Information, 1-98 Agriculture Building, Columbia,
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$.75 GH 6600 Revised 12/00/10M