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What do we tell the kids? Talking to toddlers about divorce

It is never easy to tell your children that your marriage is ending. Even if they are old enough not to be surprised, you have to choose your words carefully. And, according to parenting experts, you should adapt your message depending on your child's age. You can tell a teenager that you and your spouse are splitting up and you have opted for a collaborative rather than a litigated divorce. With a toddler, though?

A toddler can't grasp an abstract concept like marriage or divorce, so it's unlikely that you'll be able to explain mediation and litigation. Parenting experts say it's best to keep the message simple, to break it down to its most basic elements: "Daddy and mommy make each other sad, so we are going to live in different places."

Anyone who has a toddler knows that toddlers depend on routine. If a divorce doesn't upset a child's routine, nothing does. So, it is important to focus on the things that will stay the same: "Mommy will stay with you in this house, and Daddy will live with grandma." Or, "Mommy will be living in a new house, but she'll see you often."

You cannot say often enough how much both you and your ex-spouse love your toddler. "You make us both so happy," and, "Mommy will always be your mommy, and she will always love you," can go a long way to easing a toddler's fears. In one case, a woman explained that her ex-husband moved across the country for a year after the divorce. She talked to their toddler about him as often as possible, emphasizing the fact that daddy still loved the child with all his heart.

Another challenge with toddlers is that they may not be able to express their emotions; the response is usually behavioral, with angry outbursts or periods of withdrawal. In these situations, parenting experts recommend that you verbalize the emotion for your child. "Are you sad?" "Are you angry that we left our old house?" Again, clear, simple messages can help your child understand what's going on with him and with his parents.

Source: Parenting.com, "When Parents Divorce," Mary Garner Ganske, December 2011

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