Seeing your parents divorce is hard for any child, young or old. After all, the family unit as they know it may be changing overnight. By giving them the right emotional and mental support you can help them emerge stronger from the experience. Here’s what you need to know.
Divorce And Separation Causes Anxiety, Behavioral, And Emotional Changes In Children
When you and your spouse separate, it has emotional and mental fallout for your kids too. Children experience a sense of loss, anxiety, fear of abandonment, anger, and even guilt that they may somehow be responsible.1 From stranger anxiety to irritability and anxiety in smaller kids to slipping grades and behavioral issues in teens, every age group handles divorce differently. It isn’t going to be easy, but, fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to make it less painful. Start with some simple but effective steps that’ll help you approach the situation better.
1. Explain What Is Happening
Talk to your kids about the divorce. It may not be an easy conversation to have, but it is one you must not put off. Explain why you have chosen to go your separate ways. Clarify to them that this is a well-thought-out decision. It will prevent them from thinking the worst of you and may help older children see your side of things too. If you can, have this conversation with your partner present so they can see that you’re being honest with them. This clarity would help avoid your child going down a dark path and pinning the blame for the split on themselves. The mixture of guilt, anger, helplessness, and loss may be assuaged a bit if they see it’s necessary for everyone’s sake to separate.2
2. Discuss Practical Aspects Of The Separation With Them
The uncertainty of the situation is often the most severe blow for a child going through a divorce. Don’t let them wonder and speculate. Loop them in on how the shared parenting arrangements will be. That way, they will know how often they can see each parent, who they will be living with, how they can reach out to the other parent, and so on.3
Be prepared for some of these questions from your child and have clear answers for them. If some things are undecided, tell them by when things will be clear.4:
- Where will I stay?
- When/how often will I see dad/mom?
- Where will dad/mom be living?
- What if I want to see dad/mom more often?
- Will I be in a new school?
- How will we celebrate holidays/graduation/major events?
- Will I have to stop taking my dance/music/art or other lessons after school?
- Will dad/mom have to get a job? Where will I go after school if you’re working?
3. Avoid Exposing Children To Negativity
If you’ve had an acrimonious split from your partner, there is no reason to pull your child into things. Children benefit from having healthy, loving relationships with both parents, so unless you feel your spouse could harm your child intentionally or otherwise, try and keep their relationship independent of yours. After all, you will need to communicate and handle shared parenting responsibilities. It is understandable if you have disagreements and contentious issues to discuss, but do this with tact and care.5 Here are some ways to handle it:
- Never argue in front of your child. Try and save heated discussions for when they are in school, away at a friend’s or relative’s, or are asleep. Or restrict these conversations to therapy or meditation sessions where your kids aren’t around.
- Do not pull children into the argument and force them to take sides.
- Avoid badmouthing your ex in front of your child – it is their mother or father you are talking about after all.
- When you visit your child or when your partner comes over, be pleasant. Never leave things on a sad or dour note. The child will then look forward to these visits and won’t have to worry about the bad blood between the two of you.
You don’t have to be best friends with your ex, but be civil for the few minutes when you hand over or pick up your child. Focus on your child – your smile is for them and you.
4. Don’t Just Talk But Also Listen
Let your children tell you how they feel. Don’t pre-empt the discussion by suggesting what they might be feeling. Your child’s pediatrician can help facilitate this conversation if you aren’t making headway alone or are worried about how to broach the topic or gauge their responses.6
The key is to listen more and talk less. Answer their questions. This will help you get a better feel for how they are coping and what their concerns are. Talking can be therapeutic for your child too. It is an opportunity for them to vent anger or frustration, share fears and concerns, and have their doubts and questions answered by you.7
5. Let Them Know Their Feelings Are Valid
This process can be unnerving for your child and they may question themselves or even wonder if they are right in their concerns. Legitimize their feelings and emotions by saying you understand why they feel a certain way; or why they feel angry, lonely, or sad without the other parent there. This helps them come to terms with their feelings too. After this, you will be better prepared to take on next steps and solutions together.8
6. Get Professional Help And Support For Your Children
The world as they know ceases to exist for a child with a divorce – and that’s hard to process at any age. Because you are also going through such major emotional upheaval, it can sometimes be easier to seek outside help and involve a therapist or specialist. For instance, Family and Children’s Services runs special programs to help parents support their children through divorce. You will be taught how to manage conflict and identify red flags that could signal a call for help from your child. Understanding likely reactions to these circumstances can help you be better prepared. Such forums and groups also give you a chance to talk to your child openly about the divorce and what life will be like hereon.9 You could also seek one-to-one support from licensed practitioners affiliated to the American Psychological Association or the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.10
7. Rope In Family And Friends That Your Child Is Close To
The challenge can be greater with adolescents who are already pulling away from you in the normal course of things. Grief can make them even more reluctant to open up to you. This doesn’t indicate a lack of love for you. Things may simply be too overwhelming and the only people they can blame for their situation is you.
If you find your child or teen isn’t comfortable discussing their problems or concerns about the divorce with you, blames you for this “mess,” or has shut down, involve someone your child is close to. From a grandparent to an aunt or uncle, this could be anyone they feel comfortable speaking to or who is an influence in their life. It could even be a caregiver, teacher, counselor, or someone at the store where they have a part-time job. Also, remember to take these adults into confidence and ask them to alert you to any red flags like depression or other issues they might spot.11
8. Get Help For Yourself
It is also important to get help for yourself so you can be strong enough to help your children. Quite like the airline drill to first help yourself before you assist others. If you’re a shambles, you’ll hardly be a pillar of strength for your children. Ignore your own concerns and fears and you may even be at risk of depression and alcohol abuse.
Feelings of deception, rejection, and anger can hold you in a vice – and you will need help to wrangle free. According to researchers, fathers are likely to feel like they’re pushed away and develop anxiety and depression or start substance abuse; mothers may end up feeling overwhelmed, humiliated, and incapable as a parent. The result is often anxiety, depression, and even heavy drinking.12 Whatever your fears, share them with a family member, close friend, or someone you trust in the community. You will also feel less alone in all of this. If you need professional help because of depression or anxiety issues that are interfering with your life, invest in it.13
9. Share Activities To Spend More Time With Your Child
Make a special effort – even if life is terribly busy – to spend more time with your child. You could do this in many ways14:
- Take up some classes together
- Exercise together
- Take a holiday together
- Create a shared album online for both parents and the child to upload photos of their lives and stay connected
- Use story writing, journals, or art to communicate and share an experience
10. Make Changes – But One At A Time
Ripping a child from their family home or moving them to a new school where they have to start all over can be shattering to their confidence and morale. The separation of their parents is a big enough change for a child to deal with. Avoid flooding them with more change unless absolutely necessary. Work out an arrangement so that the parent they will be living with retains the family home or at least has it until the school year is out. This will reduce the upheaval and allow them to retain their circle of friends at home and school.
Try and organize more frequent visits by the parent living apart, especially at first, to make the transition smoother and the change less stark.15 It may be simpler for you to be done with all the changes in one go or to cut away, move on, and get a fresh start immediately. But this could be extremely damaging to your child and may be worth delaying for a while.
11. Create Not One But Two Homes For Your Child
Simple things you may not give much thought to can rattle a child when they’re already on shaky grounds. Familiar surroundings is one such aspect. Often, there is one house with all the child’s things which feels like home. The other parent may have a very grown-up home with none of the child’s things there. This makes it seem less of a home and more clinical and will often influence how a child feels when they are in that house. It might even make them want to visit that parent less. Be sure to keep a stash of their favorite books and toys at both homes. Have some of their clothes and bed linen in both places. That way, life will seem less disjointed when they visit one parent away from the one who has primary custody.16
12. Communicate Right With A Young Child Or Toddler Coping With Divorce
A lot of the conversations you can have with an older child or teenager may be more complicated when you’re dealing with a younger child. They may not always be able to clearly express their feelings and emotions. Here are some ways to help open up those lines of communication17:
- Use role play with dolls and toys to see how they feel about the divorce. Often, a child’s will pick things that are on their mind like a parent moving away.
- Give them picture books or stories to help them understand or come to grips with things. Books on divorce-related themes or parents moving away can also give them a bigger picture of things – and reassurance that things do turn out well in the end.
- Emphasize that both parents love them unconditionally and are there for them. You could do this directly telling them that. But also reinforce this by reading stories about characters where the parents love them whether they are with them or not.
- If you have a caregiver or teacher that spends a lot of time with your child, be sure to speak to them often. Discuss issues and any behavioral changes that they may have noticed so you can help your child cope better.
|↑1||Divorce or separation of parents – the impact on children and adolescents: information for parents, carers and anyone who works with young people. Royal College of Psychiatrists.|
|↑2, ↑3, ↑11, ↑15||Helping children through separation. Partnership for Children.|
|↑4, ↑5, ↑8||Helping Your Child Through a Divorce. The Nemours Foundation.|
|↑6, ↑12||Cohen, George J., and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “Helping children and families deal with divorce and separation.” Pediatrics 110, no. 5 (2002): 1019-1023.|
|↑7||Separation, divorce and contact. National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.|
|↑9||Helping Children Cope with Divorce. Family & Children’s Services.|
|↑10||HELPING CHILDREN COPE WITH DIVORCE. Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.|
|↑13||Taking care of yourself. Partnership for Children.|
|↑14, ↑16||Activities for Helping Children Deal with Divorce. University of Missouri Extension.|
|↑17||Helping Infants and Toddlers Adjust to Divorce. University of Missouri Extension.|