Children can react to their parents' divorce or break-up in all sorts of ways. While older kids, from about age nine to teenagers, are more likely to feel angry, ashamed, and resentful as the life they'd become so familiar with is turned upside-down without their input, research reveals that toddlers and younger school-aged kids do, in fact, have a tendency to blame themselves for the divorce or breakup.
Guilt can enter the picture in other ways, too. Perhaps a child feels guilty about still loving a parent whose abusive behavior ultimately led to the breakup, or perhaps they hate themselves for feeling closer to one parent than the other. When their parents are no longer a united front, loyalty games that a child is just not ready for can start playing out in their heads.
1. Newly divorced parents: Stop fighting among yourselves!
Nope. The advice to simply tell your kids that your breakup wasn't their fault isn't first on the list, though we'll get to that later. The first bit of advice, which you can begin taking to heart even when you're still debating whether to break up, is to minimize conflict between yourself and your (soon-to-be) ex partner.
Many unhappy couples stay together for much longer than they really want to "for the kids' sake". Knowing that continued conflict between the two of you can have a profoundly negative impact on your children's self-image and being aware that it boosts the odds that your kids will blame themselves for your breakup and everything that surrounds it, make not fighting and instead combing to workable, semi-friendly, solutions a top priority.
Sharing parental care does lead to better emotional outcomes among kids of divorced parents, meanwhile. That caveat remains in place, though. If the only time you see your ex is when you drop your child off there or pick them up, and this is always accompanied by either overt shouting matches or cold "we're trying to keep it civil but really can't" type behaviors around parenting issues, that could really hammer the (erroneous) message that any time you two discuss your child, it causes a fight. (Therefore, the fight is the child's fault.)
2. Explain what let to your breakup — and that it wasn't your kids' fault
Kids who are left in the dark about what caused their parents' breakup or divorce may be more likely to ultimately blame themselves. Remember that younger children, whose abilities to engage in logical thinking are still developing, are more likely to do this than older ones.
Now, you don't have to go into excruciating detail. Keep it age-appropriate. "Mommy and daddy keep fighting and don't love each other any more, but that's not your fault and we will always love you very much" should cover it, as long as the conversation isn't a one-off and you remind your child frequently.
3. Offer your kids the opportunity to process their feelings with something else
The same study also indicated that children did feel a strong need to process their feelings by discussing them with someone. So, if that person's not gonna be you, it has to be someone else, or multiple other people. You could facilitate this in several ways:
- Make sure your children spend plenty of time with trusted adults they feel safe to open up to — maybe a favorite aunt or uncle.
- Make them aware of safe people outside of the family they could talk to, such as a school counselor.
- Discussing parental divorce with other children of divorced parents can be of great help, too.
- Get them therapy. Seriously. This can help so much.
4. Minimize the potential for loyalty struggles
Feelings of guilt can certainly arise when parents force their children to "pick a side". Wanting to be loyal to both parents, this can never end well. Avoid bad-mouthing your ex or coaxing your child into agreeing with you that your ex is an [expletive]. When a child feels able to safely acknowledge that both parents are important to them and they need the love and attention of both parents, guilt has less of a place.