helping children cope with divorce

How to help children deal with divorce

When mom and dad breakup or divorce, a child can feel confused, stressed, angry, and uncertain as well as profoundly sad. At any age, kids may feel shocked, uncertain, or angry at the prospect of mom and dad splitting up. They may even feel guilty, blaming themselves for the problems at home. While it’s normal for a child to grieve the breakup of the family, as a parent there’s plenty you can do to make the process less painful for your kids. Divorce is never a seamless process, but these tips can help your children cope with the upheaval of a breakup and come out the other side more resilient, more understanding, and even with a closer bond to both parents.

However, the way children will react is always different. How your children will react to your separation and adjust to it will depend upon several things:

  • Family relationships before separation
  • Age, personality and stage of development of the children when you tell them of the separation
  • How both parents manage the situation
  • How parents cope with the break-up and any ongoing relationships
  • The temperament of the children – for instance, whether they are easy going or highly-strung.

A major factor in children’s adjustment is the level of conflict that exists between the parents. Most children feel vulnerable and have many fears, some realistic, some unfounded. Some will express strong feelings and younger children can often experience fear of abandonment and separation anxiety. This is often triggered by particular events such as saying goodbye. These are normal reactions to an extremely stressful time. Generally, children are resilient in the face of major changes. Once the situation has stabilized, most children manage well. If a child cannot settle down, particularly if there are other difficulties in their lives, seek professional help.

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As a parent, you can help your kids cope with the breakup by providing stability and attending to your child’s needs with a reassuring, positive attitude.

What your child wants from mom and dad during a breakup or divorce

  • I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please call me, email, text, and ask me lots of questions. When you don’t stay involved, I feel like I’m not important and that you don’t really love me.
  • Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me, I think that I did something wrong and I feel guilty.
  • I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.
  • Please communicate directly with each other so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth between you.
  • When talking about my other parent, please say only kind things, or don’t say anything at all. When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side.
  • Please remember that I want both of you in my life. I count on my mom and dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.

Make sure you tell the children that they are not to blame for the separation and assure them that both parents love them and that this will always be the case. Whatever you do, don’t criticize the other parent in front of your children, and don’t pump them for information about what the other parent is doing or saying. Let the children know how important you think it is to have an ongoing relationship with the other parent. And let the children see you behave in a respectful and positive way with each other.

Finding time to talk with, and listen to, your children will be helpful to them. They need to know that, even though you are distressed at times, life will improve and you are handling things. Children will need time to talk about their feelings – maybe to talk about the other parent. This might be difficult for you, but it is important for the children that you can listen and understand.

Children need to feel secure, and you can provide this by maintaining clear and firm guidelines around what is acceptable behavior. Your normally honest 8-year-old may begin to lie or steal because of what is happening. But don’t allow a behavior that is not normally tolerated to be overlooked; in the long run, that won’t help your child or you. Fair and consistent discipline is important at any time.

Don’t use the children as a “post-box”, sending messages through them to the other parent. Keep arguments with the other parent private. Talk with other adults when you are upset and angry, rather than discussing the “ins and outs” with the children.

Do talk with the children’s teachers, and any other adults who have responsibility for the children, as this will help them to make sense of any unusual behavior that occurs.

It is important for parents to remember that children will feel caught, and can be seriously scarred emotionally, if they are:

  • asked to carry messages between parents, especially hostile ones
  • asked intrusive questions about the other parent
  • made to feel that they have to hide information
  • made to feel that they have to hide their feelings about the other parent.

Ground rules for parenting successfully after separation

Respect each other’s privacy; don’t interfere in the other’s household.

  • Extend common courtesy and manners when you meet, as you would to a colleague or acquaintance.
  • Make appointments to discuss things. It could be useful to meet on neutral ground, like a coffee shop. Sometimes it’s easier to stay calm in a public place.
  • Don’t hold anger in, but do avoid physical conflict and fighting about the children in front of them. Bear in mind that your children will benefit from a good resolution to your differences.
  • Search for solutions, not fault. If you both think you can not do it on your own, find someone who has the skill to mediate.
  • Explain to the children how you both have decided to settle the differences. Children need to know.
  • Give your ex-partner the benefit of the doubt; don’t make assumptions based on what the children have said. Check things out calmly with your ex-partner.
  • Be businesslike; keep your feelings in check; evaluate your ex-partner’s behavior, not by how you feel but by how businesslike it is.
  • Be trustworthy; follow through on your agreements. Once arrangements for the children are in place… STICK TO THEM! Children need as much certainty as their parents can give them at a time like this.
  • Concentrate on your own relationship with the children. Let your ex-partner parent in his or her own way.
  • Put things in writing; don’t assume. Make sure agreements and plans are explicit and detailed as to time, place, cost, and so on. Make the pledge never to take a child away, or to use the children as ammunition, to hurt the other parent.
  • Issues of safety. When couples separate, family violence may be an issue. Professional help and advice is recommended.

Top mistakes separated or divorced parents make

  • Mistake No. 1: Failing to tell your children about the impending separation/divorce. This may lead to children imagining the very worst about their parents’ relationship and what will happen to them.
  • Mistake No.2: Neglecting to reassure children that they were not to blame for the break-up.
  • Mistake No. 3: Bickering in the children’s hearing. Children may respond to the fears and anxiety that this causes by becoming difficult, shy, morose or angry.
  • Mistake No. 4: Speaking contemptuously of the absent partner. Telling children, “Your father is a slob”, or “Your mother is a fool”, has a devastating effect on children.
  • Mistake No. 5: Using your children for your own ends by asking them to spy on the other parent, or using them as post-boxes and sending messages to the other parent through them.
  • Mistake No. 6: Encouraging children to take sides with you against the other parent, or telling them, “I still love him, but he doesn’t love me”, or “I want to keep the house for you kids, but she wants to sell it”.
  • Mistake No. 7: Abruptly upsetting the children’s routine by moving house and school. The shock of separation/divorce is lessened for youngsters who continue to live in the same house and attend the same school. If this is not possible, talk to the children about what is going to happen.

How to tell kids about divorce

When it comes to telling your kids about your divorce, many parents freeze up. Make the conversation a little easier on both yourself and your children by preparing what you’re going to say before you sit down to talk. If you can anticipate tough questions, deal with your own anxieties ahead of time, and plan carefully what you’ll be telling them, you will be better equipped to help your children handle the news.

What to say and how to say it

Difficult as it may be, try to strike an empathetic tone and address the most important points right up front. Give your children the benefit of an honest—but kid-friendly—explanation.

  • Tell the truth. Your kids are entitled to know why you are getting a divorce, but long-winded reasons may only confuse them. Pick something simple and honest, like “We can’t get along anymore.” You may need to remind your children that while sometimes parents and kids don’t always get along, parents and kids don’t stop loving each other or get divorced from each other.
  • Say “I love you.” However simple it may sound, letting your children know that your love for them hasn’t changed is a powerful message. Tell them you’ll still be caring for them in every way, from fixing their breakfast to helping them with homework.
  • Address changes. Preempt your kids’ questions about changes in their lives by acknowledging that some things will be different, and other things won’t. Let them know that together you can deal with each detail as you go.

Don’t tell them until you are both composed and can present a united and reassuring front. Tell your children something before you actually separate so that things can sink in. If you can tell the children together, do so. Make sure you both know what’s going to be said beforehand. You will need time to answer questions and reassure the children. Acknowledge that it’s been a difficult decision to make and that it will be hard for everyone in the family to get used to. Explain that, while you can no longer live together as husband and wife, you will always be their parents. With older children, talking generally about adult love and marriage can help them appreciate the complexities of relationships and respect the way their parents have handled the break-up.

Try to convey the reason for separation in a simple way; leave out the bits which blame the other parent. Make statements like, “We like one another in some ways, but can’t live with each other”. Say that some of the things that happened between you are difficult to explain and that you know it won’t be easy for them to understand. Glenda Banks, in her book ‘Helping Your Child Through Separation and Divorce’, has a very good rule of thumb: “Don’t bite off more than your child can swallow.” Make sure you tell them that they are not to blame for the separation. Give lots of reassurance that you will always be their parents and will always love them. Also tell them that nothing they can do will change the situation. Talk about the living arrangements; be positive. Talk about how the parent who is to move away will maintain contact – by phone calls, letters, visits, videos, emails, faxes.

Be prepared to discuss things like:

  • What will become of birthday and Christmas celebrations?
  • Will both parents go to special school events?
  • How will the other parent receive invitations?
  • What will happen during holidays?

Remember to say that good things, as well as sad, will result from the separation, and talk about the positive things. At first you may not get much of a reaction; they may need time for the news to sink in; but be prepared for tears and anger, for wanting to talk and not wanting to talk. In short, be prepared for a variety of responses and listen to your children. The way you and your ex-partner behave will have an impact on your children’s ability to adjust well to the separation, now and in the future.

Avoid blaming

It’s vital to be honest with your kids, but without being critical of your spouse. This can be especially difficult when there have been hurtful events, such as infidelity, but with a little diplomacy, you can avoid playing the blame game.

  • Present a united front. As much as you can, try to agree in advance on an explanation for your separation or divorce—and stick to it.
  • Plan your conversations. Make plans to talk with your children before any changes in the living arrangements occur. And plan to talk when your spouse is present, if possible.
  • Show restraint. Be respectful of your spouse when giving the reasons for the separation.

How much information should I give my child about the divorce?

Especially at the beginning of your separation or divorce, you’ll need to pick and choose how much to tell your children. Think carefully about how certain information will affect them.

  • Be age-aware. In general, younger children need less detail and will do better with a simple explanation, while older kids may need more information.
  • Share logistical information. Do tell kids about changes in their living arrangements, school, or activities, but don’t overwhelm them with the details.
  • Keep it real. No matter how much or how little you decide to tell your kids, remember that the information should be truthful above all else.

Help your child grieve the divorce

For kids, divorce can feel like an intense loss—the loss of a parent, the loss of the family unit, or simply the loss of the life they knew. You can help your children grieve their loss and adjust to new circumstances by helping them express their emotions.

  • Listen. Encourage your child to share their feelings and really listen to them. They may be feeling sadness, loss or frustration about things you may not have expected.
  • Help them find words for their feelings. It’s normal for children to have difficulty expressing their feelings. You can help them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk.
  • Let them be honest. Children might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Let them know that whatever they say is okay. They may blame you for the divorce but if they aren’t able to share their honest feelings, they will have a harder time working through them.
  • Make talking about the divorce an ongoing process. As children age and mature, they often have new questions, feelings, or concerns about what happened, so you may want to go over the same ground again and again.
  • Acknowledge their feelings. You may not be able to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but it is important for you to acknowledge their feelings rather than dismissing them. You can also inspire trust by showing that you understand.

Let kids know they’re not at fault

Many kids believe that they had something to do with the divorce, recalling times they argued with their parents, received poor grades, or got in trouble. To help your kids let go of this misconception:

  • Set the record straight. Repeat why you decided to get a divorce. Sometimes hearing the real reason for your decision can help.
  • Be patient. Kids may seem to “get it” one day and feel unsure the next. Treat your child’s confusion or misunderstandings with patience.
  • Reassure. As often as you need to, remind your children that both parents will continue to love them and that they are not responsible for the divorce.

Give reassurance and love

Children have a remarkable ability to heal when given the support and love they need. Your words, actions, and ability to remain consistent are all important tools to reassure your children of your unchanging love.

  • Both parents will be there. Let your kids know that even though the physical circumstances of the family unit will change, they can continue to have healthy, loving relationships with both of their parents.
  • It’ll be okay. Tell kids that things won’t always be easy, but that they will work out. Knowing it’ll be all right can provide incentive for your kids to give a new situation a chance.
  • Closeness. Physical closeness—in the form of hugs, pats on the shoulder, or simple proximity—has a powerful way of reassuring your child of your love.
  • Be honest. When kids raise concerns or anxieties, respond truthfully. If you don’t know the answer, say gently that you aren’t sure right now, but that you’ll find out and it will be okay.

What parents and teens can do to make it easier

A breakup, separation or divorce is a highly stressful and emotional experience for everyone involved, but children often feel that their whole world has turned upside down. At any age, it can be traumatic to witness the dissolution of your parents’ marriage and the breakup of the family. Inevitably, such a transitional time doesn’t happen without some measure of grief and hardship, but you can dramatically reduce your children’s pain by making their well-being your top priority.

Your patience, reassurance, and listening ear can minimize tension as your children learn to cope with unfamiliar circumstances. By providing routines your kids can rely on, you remind them that they can count on you for stability, structure, and care. And by maintaining a working relationship with your ex, you can help your kids avoid the stress and anguish that comes with watching parents in conflict. With your support, your kids can not only successfully navigate this unsettling time, but even emerge from it feeling loved, confident, and strong.

Keep the peace

  • Dealing with breakup and divorce is easiest when parents get along. Teens find it especially hard when their parents fight and argue or act with bitterness toward each other. You can’t do much to influence how your parents behave during a divorce, but you can ask them to do their best to call a truce to any bickering or unkind things they might be saying about each other. No matter what problems a couple may face, as parents they need to handle visiting arrangements peacefully to minimize the stress their kids may feel. Letting your parents know that even though you know everyone is super-stressed, you don’t want to get caught in the middle.

Be fair

  • Most teens say it’s important that parents don’t try to get them to “take sides.” You need to feel free to hang out with and talk to each of your parents without the other parent acting jealous, hurt, or mad. It’s unfair for anyone to feel that talking to one parent is being disloyal to the other or that the burden of one parent’s happiness is on your shoulders. When parents find it hard to let go of bitterness or anger, or if they are depressed about the changes brought on by divorce, they can find help from a counselor or therapist. This can help parents get past the pain divorce may have created, to find personal happiness, and to lift any burdens from their kids. Kids and teens also can benefit from seeing a family therapist or someone who specializes in helping them get through the stress of a family breakup. It might feel weird at first to talk to someone you don’t know about personal feelings, but it can be really helpful to hear about how other teens in your situation have coped.

Keep in touch

  • Going back and forth between two homes can be tough, especially if parents live far apart. It can be a good idea to keep in touch with a parent you see less often because of distance. Even a quick email saying “I’m thinking of you” helps ease the feelings of missing each other. Making an effort to stay in touch when you’re apart can keep both of you up to date on everyday activities and ideas.

Work it out

  • You may want both parents to come to special events, like games, meets, plays, or recitals. But sometimes a parent may find it awkward to attend if the other is present. It helps if parents can figure out a way to make this work, especially because you may need to feel the support and presence of both parents even more during divorce. You might be able to come up with an idea for a compromise or solution to this problem and suggest it to both parents.

Talk about the future

  • Many teens whose parents divorce worry that their own plans for the future could be affected. Some are concerned that the costs of divorce (like legal fees and expenses of two households) might mean there will be less money for college or other things. Pick a good time to tell your parents about your concerns — when there’s enough time to sit down with one or both parents to discuss how the divorce will affect you. Don’t worry about putting added stress on your parents, just try to pick a good time to talk when everyone is feeling calm. It’s better to bring your concerns into the open than to keep them to yourself and let worries or resentment build. There are solutions for most problems and advisors and counselors who can help teens and their parents find those solutions.

Figure out your strengths

  • How do you deal with stress? Do you get angry and take it out on siblings, friends, or yourself? Or are you someone who is a more of a pleaser who puts others first? Do you tend to avoid conflict altogether and just hope that problems will magically disappear? A life-changing event like a breakup and divorce can put people through some tough times, but it can also help them learn about their strengths, and put in place some new coping skills. For example, how can you cope if one parent bad-mouths another? Sometimes staying quiet until the anger has subsided and then discussing it calmly with your mom or dad can help. You may want to tell them you have a right to love both your parents, no matter what they are doing to each other. If you need help figuring out your strengths or how to cope — like from a favorite aunt or from your school counselor — ask for it! And if you find it hard to confront your parents, try writing them a letter. Figure out what works for you.

Live your life

  • Sometimes during a breakup and divorce, parents may be so caught up in their own changes it can feel like your own life is on hold. In addition to staying focused on your own plans and dreams, make sure you participate in as many of your normal activities as possible. When things are changing at home, it can really help to keep some things, such as school activities and friends, the same. If things get too hard at home, see if you can stay with a friend or relative until things calm down. Take care of yourself by eating right and getting regular exercise — two great stress busters! Figure out what’s important to you — spending time with friends, working hard at school, writing or drawing, or being great at basketball. Finding your inner strength and focusing on your own goals can really help your stress levels.

Let others support you

  • Talk about your feelings and reactions to the divorce with someone you trust. Talking about emotionally painful events is natural and even useful, if you do it in a problem-solving way, or if you do it to get emotional validation. If you’re feeling down or upset, let your friends and family members support you. These feelings usually pass. If they don’t, and if you’re feeling depressed or stressed out, or if it’s hard to concentrate on your normal activities, let a counselor or therapist help you. Your parents, school counselor, or a doctor or other health professional can help you find one. Many communities and schools have support groups for kids and teens whose parents have divorced. It can really help to talk with other people your age who are going through similar experiences.

Kids dealing with divorce

No matter what age your children are, they will be affected emotionally by the separation and will need your understanding and support. It will take time for them, and you, to adjust to the loss of the family living together, even if things at home have been unpleasant through arguments or angry silences.

Preschool, 0-5 years

Small children are less able to understand what is going on. They are very dependent on their parents and will most likely want to stay close to the parent with whom they have most contact.

Such children are likely to:

  • be confused and worried about whether they have done something to cause the separation
  • fret for the parent who has gone and wonder whether Daddy or Mummy still loves them
  • fantasize what they don’t understand, and make up things from their own experience which may cause them great distress.

For example, they may worry that they will be abandoned when you go and leave them for a while, or that you won’t be there when they wake up.

Such children are likely to show their distress by:

  • having trouble sleeping
  • being clingy or withdrawing
  • wetting their pants when normally they are toilet-trained
  • being upset when they return from seeing the parent they are not living with the majority of the time
  • turning more to security blankets or soft toys for comfort
  • using baby talk, when normally they are able to speak quite well.

What you can do to help?

  • Provide lots of closeness and cuddles, and not just when they look distressed.
  • Tell them you love them and won’t leave them.
  • Don’t get mad if they wet the bed or regress and use baby talk.
  • Be patient if they can’t sleep.
  • Make sure you tell them about the new living arrangements and how things will work – e.g. when they will see the other parent.
  • Tell the children in advance what will happen, and when.
  • Avoid putting the other parent down.
  • Remember – they, too, are grieving.

5-8 years of age

Children this age can understand that parents operate separately from them. They are more able to talk about their feelings, but have difficulty expressing their worries, and tend to demonstrate them through undesirable behavior.

Such children are likely to be:

  • worried that they will have to choose between parents
  • wondering what will happen next
  • fearful they might be the cause of the separation
  • feeling responsible for looking after others‘ feelings – particularly parents
  • longing to get parents back together
  • blaming themselves for the break-up
  • afraid they will be replaced
  • very sad.

Such children are likely to show their distress by:

  • being reluctant and distressed to leave the other parent at the end of a visit
  • behaving badly by being abnormally angry, aggressive and restless
  • withdrawing and dreaming
  • exhibiting baby behaviors
  • wanting to stay home to be near the parent with whom they spend most time
  • asking lots of questions and appearing anxious.

What you can do to help?

  • Reassure them about the other parent’s love and that it will be forever.
  • Reassure them that they won’t have to choose between you and the other parent.
  • Provide opportunity to talk about the anger and loneliness they may feel.
  • Give lots of closeness and cuddles if they look for it (and even when they don’t).
  • Talk with them about their desire to get their parents back together again.
  • Be understanding if they reject you at times.
  • Avoid putting the other parent down

8-12 years of age

Children in this age bracket find separation extraordinarily difficult. They know what is going on, but don’t know how to handle it. They can understand why parents can be angry with each other, and they don’t seem to blame themselves for what’s happened.

Such children are likely to be:

  • afraid of being excluded from decision-making
  • just plain angry
  • fearful and unsure of their place in the world
  • worried about being abandoned
  • ashamed about what’s happened
  • responsible for looking after one or both parents
  • afraid of being asked who they want to live with.

Such children are likely to show their distress by:

  • being angry and bossy with you
  • missing the other parent intensely
  • being judgemental about who is the bad parent
  • playing one parent off against the other
  • having stomach-aches and headaches so they can stay home from school
  • frequently lying
  • stealing
  • having their school performance drop
  • finding it difficult to talk about what has happened with others
  • trying to run away.

What you can do to help?

  • Don’t ask them who they want to live with.
  • Give opportunity for them to talk about what is happening.
  • When organizing parenting arrangements, keep in mind their social and sporting activities.
  • Talk with them about the new living arrangements.
  • Answer questions honestly, even if they seem silly.
  • Spell out that they are not responsible for you.
  • Provide comfort and time to talk about their fears and concerns.
  • Avoid putting the other parent down.

Adolescents, 12-16 years

In many ways, adolescents are independent of their parents and capable of seeing that parent’s decisions are quite separate from themselves. They will struggle, as younger children, to work out how to react to the news of their parents’ separation. Often, however, they are aware that their parents’ relationship is poor, and the news can come as a relief.

Adolescents are likely to be:

  • acutely aware of the reality of the separation
  • angry and embarrassed
  • fearful and uncertain of what will happen to them
  • worried about their parents’ emotional wellbeing
  • experiencing a conflict of loyalty.

Adolescents are likely to show their distress by:

  • lacking concentration at school
  • blaming parents for separation
  • increased acting out behavior – e.g. going out without permission, refusing to co-operate
  • taking on parent concerns
  • withdrawing from the family.

What you can do to help?

  • Be prepared to listen and talk with them.
  • Don’t make them your confidant.
  • Give them time and space to work out their own reactions to the separation.
  • Avoid putting the other parent down.

Although it may be difficult or painful for both parents, it is very important that contact be established between the children and the parent with whom they are not going to be living as soon as possible. Even if arrangements are only temporary, children need to know in concrete terms that both parents are there for them at this time.

Work with your ex

Conflict between parents—separated or not—can be very damaging for kids. It’s crucial to avoid putting your children in the middle of your fights, or making them feel like they have to choose between you. The following tips can save your kids a lot of heartache.

Take it somewhere else. Never argue in front of your children, whether it’s in person or over the phone. Ask your ex to talk another time, or drop the conversation altogether.

Use tact. Refrain from talking with your children about details of the other parent’s behavior. It’s the oldest rule in the book: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Be nice. Be polite in your interactions with your ex-spouse. This not only sets a good example for your kids but can also encourage your ex to be gracious in response.

Look on the bright side. Choose to focus on the strengths of all family members. Encourage children to do the same.

Work on it. Make it a priority to develop an amicable relationship with your ex-spouse as soon as possible. Watching you be friendly can reassure children and teach problem-solving skills as well.

Resolving parenting conflicts with your ex

If you find yourself, time after time, locked in battle with your ex over the details of parenting, try to step back and remember the bigger purpose at hand.

Remind yourself: what’s best for your kids in the long run? Having a good relationship with both parents throughout their lives.

Think ahead in order to stay calm. If you can keep long-term goals in mind—your children’s physical and mental health, your independence—you may be able to avoid disagreements about daily details.

Consider everyone’s well-being. The happiness of your children, yourself, and, yes, even your ex, should be the broad brushstrokes in the big picture of your new lives after divorce.