Serving the needs of separated and divorcing families

How Can I Help My 9-12 Year Old Navigate Separation and Divorce?

Offer Basic Information

Unlike their younger counterparts, preteens have a much greater understanding of the concept of divorce and their more likely to have peers with separated parents. However, even though they may understand it better doesn’t mean they accept it. Parents have the power to help their middle aged child navigate the divorce process. Tweens, children between the ages of 9 and 12, have a grasp of some adult issues including divorce. More often than not, they want an explanation for the family separation. You can offer basic information about the separation and divorce in a manner that reflects their maturity, but leave out the details of the parents actions that led to the divorce. Answer the questions honestly, don’t lie or discuss legal or adult issues, such as infidelity. You can respond to such a question by saying, “It is not something you caused. It is an adult issue and we can no longer get along.” They need parents to avoid blaming each other. As with any age child, reassure your pre-teen early and often that your divorce is not their fault.

Resist Including Them in Adult Matters

Since tweens have a growing understanding of human relationships, they are genuinely able to empathize with their parents’ emotions and reasons for the divorce. For this reason, resist the temptation to invite them in adult problems. Be careful not to use your child as a confidant sharing your problems, daily difficulties or loneliness. Allowing your child to shoulder adult responsibilities will overburden your child. They may try to gain praise and attention by being overly helpful to one or both parents, assume a care-taking role in the home, or may try to become an overly devoted companion to a parent.  They are too young to take on this responsibility and often sacrifice their own developmental needs. Seek out your own friends or professional support.

Reduce Parental Hostilities

Pre-teens experience conflicting loyalties. Avoid drawing them into parental conflict. As with children of any age, it places the tween in the agonizing position of having to choose one parent over the other. As a result, they may experience feelings of guilt, disloyalty and fear. Reduce parental hostilities. Give your child permission and encouragement to continue loving both their parents and to be equally loyal to both parents. Children do best when they have loving relationships with both parents.

Reduce Life Changes

Family separation is a time of great change for both you and your pre-teen. Children benefit when you are able to reduce life changes. Try to minimize changes by keeping the same school, community, home and extra-curricular activities. However, acknowledge your child’s anger and try to change those things that the child finds most upsetting. Avoid burdening your child with more responsibilities if it interferes with developing friendships and familiar activities. Relationships with other children are vital to the social and emotional growth of the preteen.

Remember, even though children advance though middle childhood by moving toward a growing independence from the family and give peers more importance, your child still needs your continued involvement in their lives. Make time to regularly contact them when they are not with you through phone calls, sending emails, or texting. Attend their school functions, parent-teacher conferences, athletic events and performances.

Provide Structure and Routine

Tweens need structure and routine to feel secure. Offer them the sense of security they need to feel that they will be taken care of during the family transition. Continue to enforce reasonable limits, established rules, routines, consistent discipline and curfews. Maintain a consistent schedule for how their days are structured. Your pre-teen may need increased monitoring to make sure that they do not engage in risky behavior such as sexual activity, cutting and drug and alcohol abuse. Also, pay attention to academic performance, increased isolation and change in peer group.

Just because children in middle childhood understand divorce better than their younger counterparts, it does not mean they readily accept it. Give them time and space to talk. Validate their feelings (e.g. “I can understand why you would feel angry.”) instead of trying to change or minimize their feelings.By following the suggestions above you can help them cope with the family changes that accompany divorce. In addition, you have an opportunity to help them cope by modeling healthy coping skills. In the next post, I will discuss developmentally appropriate parenting time schedules for the middle aged child.

Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC

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