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

We occasionally revisit the topic of how a couple can communicate with their children when they have decided to divorce. Experts say that both the message and the delivery should be tailored to the child's developmental stage. Babies, for example, need to feel secure; they need structure and continuity, even if they don't understand what's going on. Toddlers can understand more but may not be able to verbalize their own emotions.

Preschoolers -- children between the ages of 3 and 5 -- are a little more complex. They'll understand more than their little brothers or sisters, but they will also tend to feel guilty about their parents' split. They won't just feel bad about their parents' situation, though; they'll feel bad about themselves, as well. Add to that a general anxiety about the future, and the parent has a lot of work to do.

The answer, according to parenting experts, is constant reassurance that the divorce had nothing to do with the child. As with a toddler, the message should be in terms of Mommy and Daddy making each other sad but the child making them happy.

Once the parents are living apart, a preschooler may be anxious that the custodial parent will leave, too. The normal separation anxiety can become excessive. The behavior to watch out for is a preschooler going out of his or her way to do chores cheerfully and not to make waves in general -- the silent wheel will keep the parent. Again, the answer is reassurance, preferably from both parents and even during the most difficult custody battle.

Preschoolers can verbalize more, but they can't verbalize everything. Some parents noticed that their children regressed after the divorce -- they used baby talk or demanded a pacifier. This is when the parent has to help put words to the child's emotions.

The key is to look for behavior changes and to respond thoughtfully. Kids can speak volumes, even if they never say a word.

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

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