Thousands of children experience stress from their parents’ divorce every year. Your child’s adjustment depends on how you approach the divorce process. Teaching kids strategies to handle any stress in childhood is important. This is especially necessary when helping kids cope with a divorce.
Stressors are external events that can negatively affect your psychological balance. How kids cope with a divorce depends on how their parents deal with it. There are also age-specific factors in play.
Kids and Divorce Stressors
Younger children are concerned with what they did to cause the divorce. “I can be good!” is a typical response from a five-year-old. It’s heartbreaking, as we hasten to assure our kids they are good and did nothing to make this happen. It is especially important for both parents to remain actively involved in caring for a young child to maintain a healthy attachment.
Elementary-aged children may try to fulfill parenting roles and responsibilities or believe they can “fix” the relationship. They may believe they need to become the man or woman of the house. They may become more defiant or withdrawn and serious or they may act out at school, with peers or their grades may suffer. It is important to remind them their job is to be a kid and that they don’t need to be responsible for your feelings. They need to know the parents are still in charge and capable of taking care of all the household responsibilities.
Pre-teens and teenagers can be behaviorally unpredictable. Divorce stress can generate many types of responses. They may retreat inside their rooms, spend more time away from home with peers, and avoid sharing their feelings more than usual for an adolescent. They may believe they need to take sides and appear to “protect” the parent who remained in the home. Aggression or sarcasm may become their primary communication medium. They may even act out at school or by pushing social boundaries. It is important they understand that both parents still love them and there are no “teams.” It is important for them to spend time with both parents, and for both parents to attend activities and attempt to maintain as many routines as possible.
How to Help Kids Cope with a Divorce
First, last and always: You are your children’s protectors. They need to be reassured they are loved. A collaborative divorce is a unique option with a goal to create an agreement that puts the children’s needs first. It may make the transition easier if you can tell them both parents are working to keep the family functioning.
Where you live and the structure of the family may change, but they need to know you will always be a family. Here are some of the ways to help kids cope with a divorce that a collaborative divorce will encourage:
Stressor: Uncertainty about what’s going on
Explain what divorce is, using age-appropriate words. Explain that some things will stay the same. They need reassurance that how you feel about them has not changed.
Stressor: Afraid to talk or ask questions
Encourage your kids to ask questions. Pay attention to your body language. Kids are perceptive about facial expressions and body tension. They should feel you are sincerely concerned about their feelings.
Younger children blame themselves. Older children tend to blame you, your partner, or both of you for causing the upheaval in their lives. Sometimes kids believe it will make one parent happier if they “take sides.” A collaborative divorce will encourage the co-parents to work together to avoid a high conflict situation. Remember to avoid aligning with your child against your partner. Your relationship with your partner is not the same as the relationship your partner has with your children. Avoid sharing anything about the divorce process with the children even if they ask. Children do not understand adult and legal matters and often attribute blame or responsibility erroneously and out of context creating resentments.
Kids cope with divorce differently. There’s no timeline. If you see signs of prolonged or deepening sadness, anger or withdrawal, your child may be grieving. Signs of grief vary among children of different ages. One child may be lower in energy; another may be more defiant and exhibit extreme or atypical behavior for that child. If you see these types of behavior, it may be time to call a therapist.
Your Guidance Can Help Kids Cope with Divorce
Collaborative divorce is structured to protect your children and your relationship with them. It also streamlines the information-gathering process for a faster divorce. The transparency of a collaborative divorce may generate more trust between partners. Even competitive partners tend to agree that a collaborative divorce can meet their family’s needs.
A communication coach can guide you and your partner toward a stronger family structure post-divorce. With a new set of communication and parenting skills, you and your partner can help your kids cope with divorce, then move forward. Contact Best Legal Choices to learn more about the collaborative divorce process in Arizona.
Heidi has been a family counselor for 16 years and has worked primarily with separating/divorcing and high conflict families for the past 4 years. Heidi’s goal is to help families reduce the need for future litigation, build resilience and healing, and help families focus on the best interests of the children and parents alike.