How To Help A Child Deal With Divorce
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 fact that their parents’ divorce will bring changes. While young kids may not fully understand the impact, they will experience a variety of emotions. The degree to which these changes will affect them will vary depending on a few difficult-to-quantify 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
If you see that your children are upset about the news, tell them that you acknowledge and care about their feelings and reassure them that their upset feelings are understandable and perfectly okay.
Let your children know that when they are ready to talk, you are there for them. Some children try to appease their parents by pretending like everything is normal. Occasionally stress can come out in other ways, including acting out when they’re at school, wanting to spend less time or with friends, or other changes to their behavior and eating or sleep patterns.
Be prepared for 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?
You might not have all the answers, but if you let them know that both parents are working together to make sure their needs are being taken care of, they will be reassured that the answers are coming.
How To Help Your Child Cope
Many children lament the loss of the “family” they are used to. 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. Over time, you and your children will come to accept the circumstances.
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. 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” lets them know that their feelings are important. Try to understand how they feel 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. If your child is struggling, sitting together, taking a walk, or simply holding a cherished stuffed animal could help them to feel better. Younger children might enjoy Facetiming with the other parent or drawing a picture for next time they see them.
- Try and stay healthy. For some adults, separation and divorce are very stressful. That pressure may be magnified by custody, asset, and financial issues, which can bring out the worst in people. Finding healthy 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. Maintain a degree of privacy and discretion when discussing the details of your divorce with your family or friends. Be sure to keep your interactions with your ex as polite as possible, particularly when you’re in front of the children. Take the high road at all times, even when your children aren’t present. Be sure to keep divorce-related letters, e-mails, and text messages in a secure location not accessible to curious children.
- Seek moral support. 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 make a healthy adjustment to this major change. Getting help from a counselor, therapist, or friend will also help keep healthy boundaries with your children. Do not lean on your children for emotional 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 not a good idea to rely on them 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.
How To Help Ease Your Child’s Comfort
Children’s reactions to the divorce may vary from day today. Often, they try to protect their parents by keeping their hard feelings to themselves. Although children often cannot label their emotions, you may see behaviors that suggest your child is experiencing one or more of the following:
- 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 exhibit signs 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.
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 way with collaborative divorce. The collaborative process can result in a divorce that is less expensive, more efficient, and less harmful to everyone involved. The legal, financial, and communication professionals at Best Legal Choices are trained to help you navigate this difficult time in your life.
Contact a professional at Best Legal Choices if you’re ready to take the first step toward starting your new life.
Jennifer Moshier brings energy, determination and commitment to everything in her path. A lawyer with a keen sense of timing, Jennifer brings a strong background from her days as a big firm lawyer and corporate general counsel.