A Parent's Guide to Helping Kids Cope with Divorce
Coping with divorce or separation is never easy for anyone involved. Few parents divorce without a good reason, but for children, understanding that reason can get lost in the sea of emotion that follows a family breakup. They are likely to feel confused, guilty, sad, angry, and even scared about what the future holds. During the process of separation, it's important for parents to consider the feelings of their children. Divorce is a difficult road to travel, but by tackling it as a family, parents and children can grow stronger and closer together.
Hearing the News
Long before a formal decision is reached, children will often have picked up on the feelings of stress or anger between their parents. When it's time to make the upcoming divorce or separation official, it's important to consider the age and maturity level of the child. Children will have lots of questions. Answer them as truthfully as possible without expressing any anger or resentment toward the other parent. Make sure that the child understands that while some aspects of daily life will change, the love felt for them by both parents will not.
Guilt, Anger, and Sadness
One of the most common things a child feels during a divorce is a sense of guilt. Many children internalize and blame themselves for the separation of their parents, especially if they or their activities are a constant subject of arguments. They may feel angry at the situation or at one or both parents. Commonly, children feel sadness about the dissolution of the family life they know and fear about an uncertain future. Different youths will express these feelings in different ways. Some may act out their frustration and sadness. Others may try to pretend nothing's wrong to spare their parents any extra worry.
No matter what a child is feeling, an essential step to coping with divorce is supportive communication. Ask them how they're feeling and if they have any questions. Reassure them that they're not to blame for the divorce and that they are still loved. Younger children may have a harder time explaining why they feel a certain way. Talk patiently and kindly with them to help them express their thoughts and worries. Once the children have been heard and feel understood, parents can take steps to help figure out what would make them feel better.
"Don't Put Me in the Middle!"
A common situation in many newly divorced or separated couples is a tendency to inadvertently turn the child into a battleground. It may be tempting to speak negatively about each other or attempt to curry favor from the child by bending household rules or providing special gifts. A child may already feel pressure to choose one parent over the other, and any extra urging to "pick a side" can undermine the sense of family they have left. Children desperately need a sense of stability during a separation. Parents must put aside personal issues to provide a neutral, comfortable environment until and after the divorce is finalized. Arguments in front of children do happen, but parents should be especially careful not to argue about the child or future living arrangements when the child is present.
There are many different types of custody arrangements, and the needs of children should always be considered when deciding on one. Joint custody may work well for younger children, but as extracurricular and academic activities increase, the arrangement may have to change. Listen to what the child is saying and what they want. They need to understand that the parents are the ones who make the decisions, but their feelings and needs should always be taken into account. If a child will be spending time at two different homes, both homes should be made welcoming. Parents should refrain from discussing each other in negative terms and should maintain consistent rules in both homes.
Monitoring, Recovery, and Moving On
Divorce and separation can affect many areas of a child's life, including school and social circles. Processing grief is normal. Children may have difficulty sleeping, eating, and focusing for a short period. As with any time a child suffers an emotional blow or loss, parents should make themselves available to provide whatever support is necessary. If a child continues to struggle with the change for an extended length of time, they may need a professional ear. The good news is that most children learn how to accept their new family dynamic and go on to pursue a happy, bright future. Coping with divorce may take a bit of time, but it is possible, especially if approached with a foundation of love, compassion, and understanding.
- Help Your Child Through a Divorce
- Activities for Helping Children Deal With Divorce
- Helping Children Cope With Divorce (PDF)
- Communication and Support: What to Tell Your Kids (PDF)
- Helping Children Adjust to Divorce
- What Your Children May Be Feeling
- Children and Separation
- Recommended Movies and Books for Separating Families (PDF)
- Divorce and Separation: Helping Your Kids (PDF)
- Literature to Help Children Cope With Family Stressors (PDF)
- Telling the Kids You're Getting a Divorce
- Do's, Don't's, and Staying Informed: Kids and Divorce (PDF)
- Helping Infants and Toddlers Adjust to Divorce (PDF)
- Divorce and Separation: Thoughts and Helpful Hints
- When Parents Date
- How Can I Stop My Child Acting Out Due to Our Separation?