Divorce is stressful for parents and kids alike. Although reactions will depend on a child’s age, temperament, and the circumstances surrounding the split, many kids feel sad, frustrated, angry, and anxious — and it’s not uncommon for them to act out because of those feelings.
Fortunately, parents can help their kids during a divorce. By minimizing the tension the situation creates, being patient as everyone adjusts to the new situation, and responding openly and honestly to your kids’ concerns, you can help them through this difficult time.
Crucial to a child’s ability to get through a divorce is the ability of the divorcing parents to maintain a civil relationship. Conflict between parents — whether they’re separated, divorced, or still together — causes major stress for kids that can last well beyond childhood.
Telling Kids About Divorce
As soon as you’re certain of your plans, talk to your child about your decision to live apart. Although there’s no easy way to break the news, if possible have both parents be there for this conversation. And it’s important to leave feelings of anger, guilt, or blame out of it.
Although the discussion about divorce should be tailored to a child’s age, maturity, and temperament, be sure to convey one basic message: What happened is between mom and dad and does not have anything to do with the kids. Most kids will feel they are to blame even after parents have said that they are not. So it’s vital for parents to keep providing this reassurance.
Give kids enough information to prepare them for any upcoming changes in their lives. Try to answer their questions as truthfully as possible, in a way that they can understand and process. Remember that kids don’t need to know every last detail — they just need to know enough to understand clearly how their lives are going to change.
With younger kids, it’s best to keep it simple. You might say something like: “Mom and dad are going to live in different houses so they don’t fight so much, but we both love you very much and will try to help you get through this.”
Older kids and teens may be more in tune with what parents have been going through, and may have more probing — and difficult — questions about things based on what they’ve overheard and picked up on from conversations and fights.
Tell kids who are upset about the news that you recognize and care about their feelings and reassure them that all of their upset feelings are perfectly OK and understandable. You might say: “I know this is very upsetting for you. Can we try to think of something that would make you feel better?” or “We both love you and are sorry that mommy and daddy have to live apart.”
Not all kids react right away. Let yours know that’s OK too, and there will be other times to talk, if they want to. Some kids try to please their parents by acting as if everything is fine, or try to avoid any difficult feelings by denying that they feel any anger or sadness at the news.
Whatever your child’s immediate reaction, it’s important to provide answers and reassurance about how life will change and what will stay the same. Be ready with answers to these questions, even before they’re asked:
- Who will I live with? Where will I go to school?
- Will I move?
- Where will mom live and where will dad live?
- Will I still get to see my friends?
- Will I have to go to a different school?
- Can I still go to camp this summer?
- Can I still do my favorite activities?
Try to be honest when addressing your child’s concerns and provide reassurance that the family will get through this, even though it may take some time.
Helping Kids Cope
Divorce brings numerous changes and a very real sense of loss. Many kids — and parents — grieve the loss of the kind of family they had hoped for, and children especially miss the presence of a parent and the family life they had. That’s why it’s common and very natural for some kids to hold out hope that their parents will someday get back together — even after the finality of divorce has been explained to them. Mourning the loss of a family is normal, but over time both you and your child will come to accept the new situation. So reassure kids that it’s OK for them to wish that mom and dad will reunite, but also explain the finality of your decisions.
Here are some ways to help kids cope with the upset of a divorce:
- Encourage honesty. Kids need to know that their feelings are important to their parents and that they’ll be taken seriously.
- Help them put their feelings into words. Children’s behavior can often clue you in to their feelings of sadness or anger. Let them voice their emotions and help them to label them, without trying to change their emotions or explain them away. You might say: “It seems as if you’re feeling sad right now. Do you know what’s making you feel so sad?” Be a good listener when they respond, even if it’s difficult for you to hear what they have to say.
- Legitimize their feelings. Saying “I know you feel sad now” or “I know it feels lonely without dad here” lets kids know that their feelings are valid. It’s important to encourage kids to get it all out before you start offering ways to make it better.
- Offer support. Ask, “What do you think will help you feel better?” They might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a few ideas — maybe just to sit together for a while, take a walk, or hold a favorite stuffed animal. Younger kids might especially appreciate an offer to call daddy on the phone or to make a picture to give to mommy when she comes at the end of the day.
- Keep yourself healthy. For many adults, separation and divorce is one of the most stressful life events they ever go through. That pressure may be amplified by custody and financial issues, which can bring out the worst in people. Finding ways to manage your own stress is essential for you and your entire family. Keeping yourself as physically and emotionally healthy as possible can help combat the effects of stress, and by making sure you’re taking care of your own needs, you can ensure that you’ll be in the best possible shape to take care of your family.
- Keep the details in check. Take care to ensure privacy when discussing the details of the divorce with friends, family, or your lawyer. Try to keep your interactions with your ex as civil as possible, especially when you’re interacting in front of the kids. Take the high road — don’t resort to blaming or name-calling within earshot of your children, no matter what the circumstances of the separation. This is especially important in an “at fault” divorce where there have been especially hurtful events, like infidelity.
- Get help. This is not the time to go it alone. Find a support group, talk to others who have gone through this, use online resources, or ask your doctor or religious leaders to refer you to other resources. Getting help yourself sets a good example for your kids on how to make a healthy adjustment to this major change. Help from a counselor, therapist, or friend will also maintain healthy boundaries with your kids. It’s very important not to lean on your kids for support. Older kids and those who are eager to please may try to make you feel better by offering a shoulder to cry on. No matter how tempting that is, it’s best not to let them be the provider of your emotional support. Let your kids know how touched you are by their caring nature and kindness, but do your venting to a friend or therapist.
Consistency and routine can go a long way toward providing comfort and familiarity that can help your family during this major life change. When possible, minimize unpredictable schedules, transitions, or abrupt separations.
Especially during a divorce, kids will benefit from one-on-one time with each parent. No matter how inconvenient, try to accommodate your ex-partner as you figure out visitation schedules.
It’s natural that you’ll be concerned about how a child is coping with this change. The best thing that you can do is trust your instincts and rely on what you know about your kids. Does they seem to be acting differently than usual? Is a child doing things like regressing to younger behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting? Do emotions seem to be getting in the way of everyday routines, like school and social life?
Depression, moodiness, acting out, poor performance in school, use of alcohol or other drugs, sexual activity, or chronic oppositional behavior can all signal that kids are having trouble. Teens may have behavior problems, exhibit depression, show poor school performance, run away from home, or get into trouble with the law. Regardless of whether such troubles are related to the divorce, they are serious problems that affect a teen’s well-being and indicate the need for outside help.
Fighting in Front of the Kids
Although the occasional argument between parents is expected even in a healthy family, living in a battleground of continual hostility and unresolved conflict can place a heavy burden on any child. Screaming, fighting, arguing, or violence can make kids fearful and apprehensive.
Witnessing parental conflict presents an inappropriate model for kids, who are still learning how to deal with their own relationships. Kids whose parents maintain anger and hostility are much more likely to have continued emotional and behavioral difficulties that last beyond childhood.
Talking with a mediator or divorce counselor can help couples air their grievances and hurt to each other in a way that doesn’t cause harm to the children. Though it may be difficult, working together in this way will spare kids the hurt caused by continued bitterness and anger.
Adjusting to a New Living Situation
Because divorce can be such a big change, adjustments in living arrangements should be handled gradually.
Several types of living situations should be considered:
- one parent may have custody
- joint custody in which both parents share in the legal decisions about the child, but the child lives primarily with one parent and visits the other
- shared joint custody in which decisions are shared and so is physical custody
There’s no simple solution to this. Although some kids can thrive spending half their time with each parent, others seem to need the stability of having one “home” and visiting with the other parent. Some parents choose to both remain in the same home — but this only works in the rarest of circumstances and in general should be avoided.
Whatever arrangement you choose, your child’s needs should always come first. Avoid getting involved in a tug of war as a way to “win.” When deciding how to handle holidays, birthdays, and vacations, stay focused on what’s best for the kids. It’s important for parents to resolve these issues themselves and not ask the kids to choose.
During the preteen years, when kids become more involved with activities apart from their parents, they may need different schedules to accommodate their changing priorities. Ideally, kids benefit most from consistent support from both parents, but they may resist equal time-sharing if it interrupts school or their social lives. Be prepared for their thoughts on time-sharing, and try to be flexible.
Your child may refuse to share time with you and your spouse equally and may try to take sides. If this occurs, as hard as it is, try not to take it personally. Maintain the visitation schedule and emphasize the importance of the involvement of both parents.
Kids sometimes propose spending an entire summer, semester, or school year with the noncustodial parent. But this may not reflect that they want to move. Listen to and explore these options if they’re brought up.
Parenting Under Pressure
It’s hard to maintain your role as a parent when going through any kind of emotional turmoil. You might be tempted to depend on kids for emotional support or to ask them to report back on what the other parent is doing. Resist such urges — mothers and fathers should work hard to keep their parental roles in place. Kids, no matter how much they try to understand what you’re going through, are still just kids.
Consistency in routine and discipline across the households is important. Similar expectations regarding bedtimes, rules, and homework will reduce anxiety. Wherever possible work with the other parent to maintain consistent rules — and even when you can’t enforce them in your ex-partner’s home, you can stick to them in yours.
It’s important to maintain as much normalcy as possible after a divorce by keeping regular routines, including mealtimes, house rules about behavior, and discipline. Relaxing limits, especially during a time of change, tends to make kids insecure and reduces your chances of regaining appropriate parental authority later.
Resist the urge to drop routines and spoil kids upset about a divorce by letting them break rules or not enforcing limits. You should feel free to lavish affection on them — kids don’t get spoiled by too many hugs or comforting words — but buying things to replace love or allowing kids to act any way they want is not in their best interests and you may have a hard time trying to reign them back in once the dust settles.
Divorce is a major crisis for a family. But if you and your former spouse can work together and maintain a civil relationship for the benefit of your children, the original family unit can continue to be a source of strength, even if stepfamilies enter the picture.
So remember to:
- Get help dealing with your own painful feelings about the divorce. If you’re able to adjust, your kids will be more likely to do so, too. Also, getting needed emotional support and being able to air your feelings and thoughts with an adult will lessen the possibility of your child shouldering the unfair burden of your emotional concerns. Confidants may include trusted friends or family members or a therapist.
- Be patient with yourself and with your child. Emotional concerns, loss, and hurt following divorce take time to heal and this often happens in phases. That’s healthy.
- Recognize the signs of stress. Consult your child’s teacher, doctor, or a child therapist for guidance on how to handle specific problems you’re concerned about.
Many of the elements that help kids in intact families thrive and be emotionally healthy are the same ones that help those from divorced families thrive and be emotionally healthy. With good support, kids can and do successfully make this life adjustment.