Helping Your Children Cope with Divorce
Divorce is not easy for any family to go through. It is very difficult and painful, but families can recover and move forward – if proper action is taken. In most cases, the decision to divorce comes after careful consideration. It is important that couples make intentional choices as they navigate a new family dynamic. One of the biggest priorities during divorce needs to be ensuring that children continue to thrive.
Thousands of children experience the stress of divorce each year. How they react depends on their age, personality, and the circumstances of the divorce process. As parents, you can decide to be a good role model for your children and turn what could be a distressing experience into an opportunity for growth for all parties involved. While it is undeniable that divorce is difficult for children, parents can make them feel supported during this process, which starts with telling them about the divorce.
Telling Your Children
When informing your children, it is critical both parents are available. This helps reduce the likeliness that children will place blame in the situation, and thus no one comes out as the “bad person” or one parent being “at fault.” Approaching this discussion together will help your child adjust more readily to the situation. There are many feelings and concerns that your children experience during the various stages of divorce, and parents should not be alarmed. Some common emotions will include anger, fear, sadness, confusion, loneliness, and guilt. It is helpful to think through what information children will need before announcing the divorce. In most cases, your children are going to have many questions. Make sure you listen to all the concerns your child has, do not rush through this conversation.
Handling Children’s Reaction
Professionals believe offering your perspective on the situation is best. Let them know that the decision to divorce was carefully thought out and that significant effort went into trying to make the marriage work. Add that while feelings for one another may have changed, the special bonds between you as parent and child have not. Tell the children who are upset about the news that you recognize and care about their feelings and reassure them that what they are feeling is okay and understandable. Encourage them to talk about what they are feeling and why the information is upsetting them. This will help them understand that what they are going through is normal and allow the parents to help them work through these feelings. Remind them that both parents love them and that they are not to blame for anything that is happening with the divorce.
Not all children react right away. This too is normal and let them know that it is okay that they may not know what to feel and they can talk when they’re ready. Some children try to please their parents by acting as if everything is fine or trying to avoid any difficult feelings by denying that they feel any anger or sadness. Sometimes stress comes out in other ways — at school, or with friends, or changes to their appetite, behavior or sleep patterns so be prepared for these situations to occur. It is important to understand that whether your children express fear, worry, or relief about your divorce, they will want to know how their own day-to-day lives might be impacted.
Helping Children Cope
Many children and parents grieve the loss of their family when a divorce occurs, and children especially miss the presence of both parents and the family life they once had. That’s why it’s common and very natural for some children 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 the parent and children will come to accept the new situation. Try to reassure them that it is okay to wish that mom and dad will reunite, but also explain the finality of your decisions.
The Importance of Consistency
Consistency and routine are critical during this major life change. Minimize unpredictable schedules, transitions, or abrupt separations. During a divorce, children will benefit from one-on-one times with each parent. No matter how inconvenient, try to incorporate this weekly as you and your partner figure out visitation schedules. The best thing to do is trust your instincts and rely on what you know about your children. Ask yourself, “Do they seem to be acting differently? 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?”
Behavioral changes are important to watch out for and any new or changing signs of moodiness; sadness; anxiety; school problems; or difficulties with friends, appetite, and sleep can be signs of a problem. Older children and teens may be vulnerable to risky behaviors. Many turn to alcohol and drug use, skipping school, and other defiant acts to help relieve some of the stressor that are related to parent divorce. 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.
Answer Their Questions
Finally, be prepared to address their questions because they are going to have plenty. They just may not be ready to ask you right away. However, some of the most common concerns children have include “Where will they live? With whom? How will this affect school? What do they say to my friends?” Again, these are all normal questions and it’s okay to discuss them in full detail, even if you have the answer them more than once.
Changes of any kind are hard but know that you and your children can and will adjust to this one. Finding your inner strength and getting help to learn new coping skills are hard work but they can make a big difference to helping your family through this challenging time. Most importantly, adults going through separation and divorce need support. Utilizing friends, professionals, clergy, and family are fine. Do not seek support from your children, even if they seem to want you to.
Ehmka, R., (2021). Supporting kids during a divorce. https://childmind.org/article/supporting-kids-during-a-divorce.
Lyness, D., PhD. (2015). Helping your child through a divorce. https://kidshealth.org/en/parent/help-child-divorce.html.