Divorce is not easy for parents or kids. Everyone in the family feels a tremendous sense of loss and anxiety. The family as they know it will no longer be the same.
One of the biggest priorities during a divorce is ensuring that children continue to thrive. While it is undeniable that divorces are challenging for kids of all ages to handle, the good news is that there is a lot that parents can do to make sure their children feel supported during the process.
In order for parents to be of the best help to their kids, they need to work with their own emotions, especially a common guilt they feel towards their kids. It is helpful for parents to recognize that coupling is one of the hardest things to do in the world and as a result divorce occurs in 50% of all marriages. It is nothing to be ashamed of. In many cases, it is better for everyone involved to sever a relationship that is causing grief. Children experience a great deal of anxiety when they live with constant parental discord. In fact, in many situations, children do better when they relate to each parent alone in a healthier environment. If parents accept their decision and present it as natural part of life, they can help their kids to overcome the difficulties.
How to Tell Kids
For many parents telling kids about a divorce is one of the hardest parts of the entire divorce process. Children look to us for security, and a divorce inevitably shifts the family foundation a child has come to rely on. But it is also a very important conversation because it gives parents an opportunity to try to lay the groundwork for a healthy new start for the whole family.
If possible, it is recommended that both parents sit down together to calmly share the news of their divorce. To head off potential sources of conflict, both parents should agree ahead of time about what to say. This is a time when kids need to be reassured, and the best way to do that is to show your children that you are both still on the same parenting team.
If it just isn’t possible for both parents to be present for this conversation, experts recommend that whichever parent is around the most should share the news.
What you say will depend on the age and maturity of your child. You don’t want to overwhelm children with details, and it is generally better to let them ask questions rather than try to give them a lot of information they aren’t ready for.
Kids sometimes wonder about when changes will be happening. Of course, some divorces are very civil and quick, but others take a long time. You want to give kids a little bit of a timeline. You could say something like, ‘We are separated now with the intention of divorcing. It may take some time to work out the details, but for now, just think of us as divorced.” If you do already have some idea of what the transition will look like, it may be reassuring for children to hear some of the details.
Give your children ample advance notice before a parent moves out. It works well if the children are able to visit the second home and know where they will sleep when they visit. It is wonderful to involve the children in helping to furnish the apartment and bring over some of their possessions.
If there’s a custody disagreement, a child-friendly way to explain this might be to say something like, “We both love you so much and want to be around you. We’re trying to figure out what we think is best for you. We don’t agree on that, but we’re going to figure it out as adults, with other adults weighing in.”
A good rule of thumb is to avoid discussing financial settlements with children or sharing any information that makes one spouse look bad. You want to avoid any unnecessary conflict as much as possible to try to preserve a healthy parent-child relationship, which is very important for kids’ wellbeing.
How Kids May React
Kids can react in many different ways to a divorce announcement. If there has been a lot of fighting in the home, some kids may actually feel relieved to hear about a divorce. But it is more common for kids to feel upset or even guilty. However your kids react, it is important to listen to them and take their concerns seriously, while making it clear that the divorce is not their fault, and that as parents you will do your best to help them feel secure and loved.
Children often start worrying about what the future will look like. Teenagers may sometimes fast forward to worrying about parents getting remarried. If this comes up, say something like, “Maybe, maybe not. Of course, I want to be happy and that could be a part of my happiness. But you’re still my child and no one else is going to replace that.”
For worries that are more immediate, like who will take the child to soccer practice or what a new bedroom might look like, getting clear answers can be very reassuring. If you are still working the details out, tell your child that you are working on the answer to that, but you will let them know whenever you can. In the meantime, you can look for other ways to help them feel secure, such as posting a temporary schedule in the kitchen.
Once you’ve told kids you are getting a divorce, it’s common for them to go through an adjustment period. You, too, will likely be going through a period of adjustment as family bonds are being reconfigured and a new “normal” is established.
Don’t be too alarmed by some of the reactions you may be seeing early in the transition. Think about how chaotic it feels for the adults in the situation, who have at least some control. That adjustment period has to happen, so honor it and don’t start to send the message ‘I just want you to be happy’. You don’t want to inadvertently pressure kids to feel like they need to be on board and happy about a divorce. While it may be true, of course, that you just want your kids to be happy as soon as possible, giving them the room to process their own feelings is an important part of adjusting.
Respect Their Emotions
One way to let kids know that it’s okay to feel upset or angry is to encourage them to share how they’re feeling. Start by saying, “We want to know how you’re feeling about this, and you’re not going to hurt our feelings if you tell us how you feel.”
This may be easier said than done, since what your child has to say might be difficult to hear, but it’s important to give them the chance to be honest. Kids sometimes try to protect their parents from the truth about how they’re feeling because they don’t want to make their parents feel upset — or more upset, if kids are already worried about a parent who’s unhappy about the break-up. But it isn’t a child’s job to make a parent feel better, and you don’t want to inadvertently send the message that you will be sad if your child is sad. Make it clear that you are interested in what your child has to say and then be careful not to let it hurt your feelings. Get whatever support you need to deal with how you feel and how your child feels and how that impacts you.
As part of respecting your child’s emotions, do your best to just listen and not intervene. It’s every parent’s instinct to jump in and protect their child from things that are painful, but divorce is inevitably painful. Taking a step back and just listening allows your child to feel heard and feel that her opinion matters. It also lets her know that her emotions aren’t a problem to be solved or “gotten over.” This requires careful listening and empathizing, and validation. For example, if your daughter says she is angry, instead of immediately looking for a way to cheer her up, you could validate that emotion by saying that you understand why she might feel that way and invite her to tell you more.
What to Expect and How to Respond
While it is normal for kids to have an adjustment period in which they might be struggling, there are things you can do to help your kids cope in the healthiest way possible. Here are some common worries or behaviors parents might see, and how to help.
It is common for kids to worry that they did something to cause their parents to get divorced, especially younger kids. Kids are more prone to blaming themselves when they’re younger because they’re so egocentric. Even if you think they understand it, that’s something you want to make sure that you tell them explicitly: It’s not their fault.
Divorce means some fundamental changes in routines, which can make many kids anxious. If you notice signs of anxiety in your children, one way to help is to make it very clear to children what they can expect. For example, what will their new living arrangements look like? For younger kids, it might help to post a calendar on the wall to show them where they will be each day.
Children will be reassured if you are able to establish a consistent routine, and as a parent you should make that a priority. Kids struggle more if their parents are struggling to figure out how to co-parent and what that’s going to look like. The earlier that you can establish ‘You’ll be here for these days and here for these days’ and have that be consistent and predictable, you’ll see kids settling in quicker and having less struggle.
Children may start acting out more, too. This may be another sign of anxiety, or it may be out of a desire to figure out what the new boundaries are. Either way, creating a structured environment with clear expectation of behavior should help.
Kids might see this as an opportunity to test new boundaries, and without as much of a structured environment, their behavior might get worse. As much as possible keep things structured in the same way in both households.
It is also common for kids to respond to a big transition in their lives by needing more parental attention. Some kids will be needing more parental and adult support with things they used to be able to do independently. You might see their sleep routine is disrupted or they’ll need you to do some self-care things for them a bit more than they used to.
Parents might also see the opposite — kids becoming more withdrawn or aloof. While giving children their space is important, you still want to create opportunities to spend time with them, so consider suggesting a special outing that may be particularly appealing or other ways to bond. Make sure, too, to do your best to be available to talk if your child wants to and do a good job listening to what he has to say when he does.
If you notice that your child is losing interest in activities that they used to enjoy, or not wanting to spend time with friends, try to get them back on track. You want to help maintain a sense of normalcy, and these outlets are important. Wanting to withdraw may also be a sign of depression, adjustment disorder, or school refusal which are all linked to divorce, so you will want to keep an eye out if your child continues to avoid things.
Some kids may also start experiencing difficulty concentrating on schoolwork. Life might be feeling very chaotic, so do your best to create predictable, reassuring routines at home, including a regular homework routine. It’s also a good idea to alert teachers to the fact that your family is going through a divorce, so that your child can get extra support at school if she needs it.
Good Parenting Tips During a Divorce
As much as possible, you want to model “we’ve got this. Even if it’s not true, even if only one parent has got this. Particularly if you have young children, then you get it to work. Modeling calm and insulating children from conflict are important during this time. Likewise, try to maintain as much normalcy as possible with home life and extracurricular activities. When changes do need to be made, create new routines, and try to stick to them.
Be civil about your ex:
It’s not healthy for children to have unnecessary conflict in their relationships with their parents, so do your best not to speak negatively about your spouse around your child. Someone could be a lousy spouse and a good parent, and you really don’t want to deprive your child of a good parent. Kids do better with two loving parents, divorced or married.
Sometimes conflict can arise once you begin working out how to co-parent. You may need to make compromises or take turns making decisions. Whatever you do, try to present a united front to your child as much as possible. If your spouse really isn’t willing to be cooperative, do your best to set routines and expectations for your home, since you do have control over that.
Talk to your child’s school counselor or teacher to find out if there are any services available through the school. Many schools have programs for children who are going through a divorce.
Also, if you are struggling, make sure you are getting support for yourself. Talk to your friends and family if you are feeling overwhelmed and ask for favors if you need them. People often want to help out, but they don’t know what to do, so let them know if you need a hand with the groceries or just want to let off some steam. If you think you might benefit from talking with a therapist, don’t hesitate to make an appointment. Remember, you can best support your child if you are feeling supported, too.
There is no question that a divorce is hard on everyone in the picture. But if children continue to feel loved by both of their parents and parents work to create a stable, calm environment for their children, children can emerge from the situation in good shape. Over time, they will be calmer as they see everything becoming a familiar routine.