Divorce can be traced all the way back to the mid-1600s in the American colonies. Back then, this was a rare option granted only to the rich; in modern times, divorce is quite common. As a society, we have become somewhat desensitized to “other people’s divorces,” but that isn’t always the case when it hits close to home.
Adult children of divorce have an increased risk of their own marriages also ending. Unfortunately, the prevalence of divorce doesn’t lessen the impact on the family. To help children deal with their parents’ divorce, it’s important to understand what they may be experiencing.
Help Ease the Pain
Pre-teens and teenagers learn about divorce from books and movies and from their friends. They are quite aware of the changes their parents’ divorce will bring. While young kids may not fully understand the impact, they will experience a variety of emotions. The degree that these will affect them will vary depending on a few measurable factors.
- The quality of the relationships with each parent before the divorce
- The intensity and duration of conflict leading up to the separation
- The ability of the parents to focus on the needs of the children during and after the divorce
One way to help ease the pain is to explore the option of collaborative divorce. When both spouses are willing to work together to avoid a high-conflict courtroom divorce, they can reduce the intensity and duration of the process. The goal is to create an agreement that benefits the family and puts the children’s needs first. This can help reduce stress, negative feelings and excessive fighting for the entire family.
How To Handle Childrens’ Reactions
Tell the children that are upset about the news, that you acknowledge and care about their feelings and reassure them that their upset feelings are understandable and perfectly okay. You could say: “I know this is very upsetting for you. Do you want us to try and think of something that would make you feel a little better?” or “Know that we both love you very much and are sorry that we have to live apart.”
A lot of children react differently. Let yours know that that’s okay, too, and that when they are ready to talk, you can. Some children try to appease their parents by portraying like everything is normal, or by saying that they feel any anger or sadness about the news when they are not. Occasionally stress can come out in other ways — when they’re at school, or with friends, or in changes to their behavior and eating or sleep patterns.
If your children exhibit fear, worry, or comfort about your separation and divorce, they’ll want to know how their own lives are going to change.
Be prepared to answer some of their questions like:
- Who will I live with?
- Do I have to change schools?
- Will I have to move?
- Where will you guys live?
- What about Holidays?
- Do I still get to see my friends?
- Can I still go to summer camp?
- Will I still be able to do my favorite activities?
Being honest is usually not easy when you don’t have all the answers or when children are feeling afraid or thinking it’s their fault about what’s happening. But the right thing to do is tell them what they need to know at that moment.
How To Help Your Child Cope
Many children — and parents alike— lament the loss of the sort of family they wanted, and children miss both parents being around and the family they had. That’s why it’s natural and common for some children to hope that their parents will get back together someday — even after you explain that the divorce is final.
Lamenting the loss of family is normal, but over time, you and your children will come to accept the circumstances. Reassure them that it’s okay to wish that mom and dad will get back together, but also explain your decisions.
Here are a couple of ways to help children cope with their parent’s divorce:
- Encourage honesty. Children need to understand that they will be taken seriously and know that their feelings are valuable to their parents.
- Help them express themselves. Children’s behavior can often let you know about their feelings of anger or sadness. You could say: “It seems like you’re feeling sad right now. Do you know what’s making you feel that way?” Even if it’s hard for you to listen to what they have to say, be patient and listen.
- Validate how they feel. Saying “I know you are feeling sad right now” or “I know it feels lonely without your mom here” lets them know that their feelings are important. It’s invaluable to encourage children to get it all out before you try to make it better. Also, let children know it’s okay to feel happy, relieved, or excited about their future.
- Offer them support. Ask, “What do you think will make you feel better?” They may not be up to name something, but you can recommend a couple of things — maybe just sitting together, taking a walk, or simply holding a cherished stuffed animal. Younger children might particularly enjoy an offer for facetime with mommy or draw a picture to give to daddy when he comes at the end of the day.
- Try and stay healthy. For some adults, separation and divorce are very stressful. That pressure may be magnified by custody, asset, and financial issues, that can bring out the worst in people.
Finding ways to deal with your stress is crucial for you and your entire family. Keeping yourself emotionally and physically healthy as you can, can help control your stress, and by making sure you’re taking care of yourself you can assure that you’ll be in the best possible shape to care for your children.
- Keep your details in check. Be sure to stay a little private when talking about the details of your divorce with your family, friends, or even your lawyer. Be sure to keep your interactions with your ex as polite as possible, particularly when you’re in front of the children. Try and take the high road — don’t start name-calling or blaming if your children can hear, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances of the separation are. This is critically important in an “at fault” divorce where there have been particularly hurtful events, such as infidelity. Be sure to keep letters, e-mails, and text messages in a secure location as children will be naturally interested if conflicting situations are going on at home.
- Get help. Don’t try and do it yourself. Find support groups, talk to others who have gone through a divorce, utilize online resources, or ask your religious leader or doctor to refer you to some other resources. Getting help by yourself sets a good example for your children on how to healthily adjust to this major change. Getting help from a counselor, therapist, or friend will also help keep healthy boundaries with your children. It’s vital to try and not lean on your children for support. Older children and those who are anxious to please may try and make you feel better by offering you a shoulder to cry on. It doesn’t matter how inviting it is, it’s a good idea not to let them be the provider for your emotional support. You can tell your children how much it means to you by how much they care, but vent to a therapist or friend.
Signs & Symptoms of Struggles
Children will express emotions differently. They may experience a diverse mix of internal and external symptoms of distress. Typically, boys are more likely to express their feelings externally, while girls tend to internalize. Signs and symptoms that a child is struggling may include:
- Getting in trouble at school
- Lower academic performance
- Increase in bullying behavior
- Increase in arguments with parents or siblings
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach or headaches
- Change in sleeping habits
- Change in eating habits
How To Help Ease Your Child’s Comfort
Children’s reactions to divorce will vary from day to day. Often, they try to protect their parents by keeping their hard feelings to themselves. Here are a few behaviors to watch for and ideas to help ease your children’s discomfort.
- Denial. This is common in younger children and may present as storytelling or reconciliation fantasies. It is important to help them deal with their parents’ divorce by reminding them that this decision is final. Being firm, but always loving, will go a long way in helping them understand that this is their new life.
- Abandonment. Children may feel as if they are being left behind. The family they grew up with is no longer intact. Parents speaking poorly of each other can exacerbate these feelings. Taking the time to reassure your children that they are loved and welcome in both homes will help them deal with their new living situation.
- Anger and Hostility. As your child deals with their parents’ divorce, they may experience levels of anger and hostility. This may be directed at the parents, siblings and even peers at school. Take time to talk through big emotions and offer an alternative way for them to handle their rage.
- Depression. Depression may present differently with each child. Indications can include a change in sleeping or eating habits, lack of enthusiasm and withdrawing from social interaction. Talk to your child immediately if you suspect they are suffering from depression. It may be time to contact a therapist to help them through this difficult time.
- Guilt. Conflicts between co-parents often involve stress related to parenting. Children can begin to feel as if they are responsible for the breakdown of their parents’ marriage. This can result in difficult transitions, refusal to go with one parent or bargaining for reconciliation. Help your child by reassuring them that the divorce wasn’t their fault.
How to Help Your Kids Deal with Their Parents’ Divorce
Refrain from having heated discussions or conversations about the divorce process in front of your children. Strive to maintain daily routines and keep disruptions to a minimum. Helping kids deal with their parents’ divorce is an essential step to maintaining a healthy relationship as you move forward.
It’s important to encourage children to express themselves and help them find appropriate words for their feelings. Offering support will let them know it’s okay to experience these emotions.
Source: “Helping Your Child Through a Divorce (for Parents).” Edited by D’Arcy Lyness, KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation, Jan. 2015, https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/help-child-divorce.html
Collaborative Divorce Is Easier On Children
Divorce in court can be emotionally draining, expensive, and harmful to you, your spouse, and your child(ren). But it doesn’t have to be that with collaborative divorce. The collaborative process can make your divorce less expensive, more efficient, and less harmful to everyone involved. At BestLegalChoices.com we’ve put together a great team of legal, financial, and communication professionals to help you navigate this difficult time in your life.
The collaborative divorce process is designed to help people who are willing to work together to make an agreement that benefits the family. Resources that help parents communicate effectively during this process can help them model appropriate behavior for their kids. With a lot of love and support, children can more effectively deal with their parents’ divorce. Contact a professional at Best Legal Choices if you’re ready to take the first step toward starting your new life.