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					     Information from
                                              FAMILY RELATIONS
     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-
                                                                                                               haved or
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
     Child age
                         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
                                                                                         adult friends.

    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
  Child age
                       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.
                                                  financial security.
                                                                                       • 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.
                                                  the family.
                                                                                       • 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
   love me.
                                                                             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       
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,      
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    
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-     
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                                                    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.                            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                                                  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.                       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-                                              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
                                     as a Vietnam era veteran in employment or programs. s If you have special needs as addressed by the Americans with Disabilities Act and
                                     need this publication in an alternative format, write ADA Officer, Extension and Agricultural Information, 1-98 Agriculture Building, Columbia,
                                     MO 65211, or call (573) 882-7216. Reasonable efforts will be made to accommodate your special needs.

$.75                                                                    GH 6600                                                                      Revised 12/00/10M

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