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How do we break it to the kids? Answers differ by age

Traditionally, the New Year brings a promise that better things are coming. The future is bright, and hope rebounds. But the New Year is also a time for reflection, and for some Chicago families that can mean big changes. January is the most common month for couples to file for divorce, and that can make the long winter months a lot more stressful.

For parents, the decision to divorce may not be the biggest or hardest one they'll make. They have to decide how to break the news to their kids.

Parents tend to focus on the "when" and the "word choice" decisions. But parenting experts would say they're skipping an important step: their children's ages.

It makes perfect sense if you think about it. You wouldn't explain anything to a 6-year-old the same way you would explain it to a 16-year-old. And it should be no different here.

People often believe that babies "won't know the difference" if one parent moves out. Research has shown, though, that even a 6-week-old notices a change to his routine -- and at that age, routine is everything.

For babies, a schedule means security. Every parent knows that a baby will fuss if his feeding schedule changes. What parents may not know, though, is that it's not only because the child is hungry. It's also because the child's routine has been disrupted, and that spells trouble for him.

Babies rely on their surroundings to provide that continuity, too. If it's possible, parenting experts recommend that the baby stay in one home. The noncustodial parent should visit often, even daily, to reassure the child that both parents are still around.

When this just doesn't work, though, the next best thing is to follow a well-defined schedule regardless of where the baby is. Surrounding the baby with familiar things will help, too -- identical sheets or crib bumpers, for example. And, by all means, allow the baby to travel with the same favorite blanket or stuffed animal.

Even though the kids come first, it's important for parents to deal with their own stresses. The end of a marriage can make a parent sad, angry, bitter or frustrated -- or all of the above. Parents should work hard to get through those feelings without "taking it out" on the baby.

The best way to impart a sense of security to a baby is to be as emotionally and physically demonstrative as possible. Gestures of love and warm tones of voice are soothing. And a good hug is worth a thousand words.

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

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