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HelpGuide Children & Divorce

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Children and Divorce

Helping your kids cope with the effects of separation and divorce

Children, as well as parents, feel the stress and confusion of separation and divorce. Many kids feel angry, sad and frustrated about the prospect of their parents splitting up for good and are uncertain about what life will be like after divorce.  Your ability to communicate successfully with your child , meet their needs, for safety and support  take care of yourself, and maintain a civil relationship with your ex will have a positive effect on your child. Given the right support, your child will be able express their feelings, grieve their loss, and emerge from this unsettling time a stronger more resilient person.

In This Article:

You may be concerned about how your separation or divorce will affect your kids. Children are likely to feel unsure about what their life will look like after their parents split up, but be confident that you and your children can successfully navigate this transition. It is your job to reassure them and show them that they can continue to count on their parents to provide stability and love throughout their lives.

Divorce and the opportunity to grow

One parent who successfully navigated the ups and downs of divorce with her kids likens the process to travelling internationally with children.  You don�t know what to expect, but you hope that your children will develop a willingness to be flexible, adapt to different �cultures�, and learn and grow throughout the challenges, rather than shrink from them. Rather than approach the process with fear and trepidation, think about the lessons that can be gained and expect that, with your support, your kids will flourish.

Talking with your children about separation and divorce

Reassurance and love will help kids� heal

More than anything else, kids want to feel protected and loved. Throughout the trials of divorce, provide reassurance and love to your kids every step of the way. All of us, and especially children, are resilient and we have a remarkable ability to heal when given the support that we need.

Let your kids know that even though the physical circumstances of the family unit will change, they can continue to have healthy, loving relationships with both of their parents. Reassure them that everyone in the family will get through this. Knowing that things will eventually be okay can provide incentive for your kids to give the new situation a chance.

Reassurance and comfort comes in many different forms:

·         Verbal communication: Beyond reminders that they will be loved and cared for, verbal reassurance should address the reasons for fear, worry, sadness or anger. For example, �I know you are upset about moving, but we will make sure you can stay in the same school.�

·         Non-verbal actions:  Children pick up on your manner, expressions and actions almost more than your words. Offer your physical presence and support by hugging your kids, taking a walk, or just sitting down together.

See Helpguide�s article on Nonverbal Communication for more information and ideas.

Help kids express their feelings

For kids, divorce means the loss of a parent and the loss of life as they know it. Even though both parents remain physically present, a child�s sense of stability is upset because the family unit is broken apart. Your support will allow them to grieve their loss and eventually adjust to their new circumstances.

Below are some important ways that you can help your children express their feelings:

·         Listen � Encourage your child to share their feelings and really listen to them. They may be feeling sadness, loss or frustration about things you may not have expected. 

·         Help them find words for their feelings � It is normal for children to have difficulty expressing their feelings. You can help them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk, �I see that you are upset � do you know what is making you sad/angry/frustrated?� 

·         Let them be honest � Children might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Let them know that whatever they say is okay. You may have to check your own feelings at the door, but it is important not to judge. If they aren�t able to share it, they will have a harder time working through it.

·         Acknowledge their feelings � It isn�t up to you to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but it is important for you to acknowledge their feelings. You can also inspire trust by showing that you understand, �I know that you feel sad without mom here.�  �I understand that you like to have dad tuck you in to bed.�

See Helpguide�s Grief & Loss article for more information about the grieving process

What I need from my mom and dad � a child�s list of wants

  • I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please write letters, make phone calls, and ask me lots of questions. When you don�t stay involved, I feel like I�m not important and that you don�t really love me.
  • Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me, I think that I did something wrong and I feel guilty.
  • I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.
  • Please communicate directly with my other parent so that I don�t have to send messages back and forth.
  • When talking about my other parent, please say only nice things, or don�t say anything at all. When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side.
  • Please remember that I want both of you to be a part of my life. I count on my mom and dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.

From �Helping Children Understand Divorce� University of Missouri

Provide order, stability and continuity in everyday life

The uncertainty of life after divorce often causes children to worry. The family unit they counted on is breaking apart. In addition to emotional reassurance, physical comfort in the form of order and continuity can also ease their worries. This is not always easy while splitting up into two new households, but it is important.

Establishing continuity doesn�t mean that you need rigid schedules or that mom and dad�s routines should be exactly the same.  However, creating some regular routines in the day and consistently communicating what to expect will provide more comfort to your kids than you might realize.

The comfort of routines

Many people know the benefit of schedules and organization for younger children, but forget that older children appreciate it as well. Kids feel more safe and secure when they know what to expect next. This can be about things as minor as dinner time, bath time and bedtime. Setting up a few established routines or rituals will show the continuity of mom and dad�s love and diminish uncertainty about new living arrangements.

Avoid blaming

When talking with your children about the separation or divorce, it is important to be honest, but not critical of your spouse. Depending on the age of your children and the reason for divorce, this may require some diplomacy.

Here are a few suggestions for talking with your kids about the separation or divorce:

  • Make plans to talk with your children before any changes in the living arrangements occur.
  • Plan to talk when your spouse is present, if possible.
  • Be respectful of your spouse when giving the reasons for the separation.
  • Tell the kids about changes in living arrangements, school or activities, but do not overwhelm them with details.

How much information to give

Age level should be your guide in determining how much to tell your child about the separation or divorce. Generally younger children need less detail and will do better with a simple explanation. Older children will seek out more information and it will be up to you to share information without saying too much.

Misunderstandings kids have

Many kids believe that they had something to do with the divorce. They may remember times when they argued with their parents, received poor grades, or got in trouble and associate those conflicts with their parents� break up.

One very important message for kids about divorce

�Although the discussion about divorce should be tailored to a child�s age, maturity, and temperament, be sure to convey one basic message: What happened is between mom and dad and does not have anything to do with the kids. Most kids will feel they are to blame even after parents have said they are not. So it�s vital for parents to keep providing this reassurance.� KidsHealth �Helping Your Child Through a Divorce�

Treat your child�s confusion or misunderstandings with patience. Reassure your children that both parents will continue to love them and that they are not responsible for the divorce.

Take care of yourself so you can help your child

The first safety instruction for an airplane emergency is to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child. Providing good care for your children means being emotionally available to them, and you can only do that if you are taking care of yourself. Depending on yourphysical and emotional state, you will either be reassuring or distressing to your child. If you are able to be calm and emotionally present, your kids will feel more at ease.

Steps to take care of yourself

  • Avoid isolating yourself from people.
  • Build your support group. 
  • Take care of your health and your children�s health.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet (see Helpguide�s Healthy Eating)  
  • Exercise
  • Keep a journal

Keep laughing

Try to bring humor and play into your life and the lives of your children as much as you can �it relieves stress but more importantly, it adds joy and provides a break from sadness and anger.

Steps to keep your relationship with your spouse civil

  • Do not argue with your spouse in front of your children or on the phone.
  • Refrain from talking with your children about details of your spouse�s behavior.
  • Make it a priority to develop an amicable relationship with your spouse, as soon as possible.
  • Be polite in your interactions with your spouse.
  • Choose to focus on the strengths of all family members.

If you are feeling intense anger, fear, grief, shame or guilt about your spouse, find someone to help you work through those feelings. By processing your emotions through writing or talking with supportive people, you will be modeling ways for your kids to better cope with their strong emotions.

How to deal with a difficult personality (Take the long view)

Disagreements are bound to arise when dealing with your ex. If you find yourself, time after time, locked in battle, and frustrated about his or her inability to put the children first, try to step back and remember the big picture. It sounds clichéd, but it will be best for your kids to have a good relationship with both of their parents throughout their lives. If you can keep that long term goal in mind, you may be able to avoid disagreements about daily details.

Get the social support children need after a divorce

Children need people to talk to other than their parents. Some kids may avoid telling their parents their true feelings because they feel guilty adding to their problems. They may more freely express themselves with someone outside the situation, whether it be a friend, teacher, relative or counselor.

Enlisting the support of others

Be sure to tell your children�s teachers, counselors, caregivers, babysitters, and athletic coaches about the situation at home. Teachers in particular should be trained in helping children. Other key people in your children�s lives will appreciate knowing what is going on and you can let them know how best to support your children.

Kids may need to learn new skills to manage stress and to cope with situations over which they have no control. Additional skills and support may come from:

  • Relatives � Aunts, uncles and grandparents can be good listeners. If you do not want your kids to visit your ex-spouse�s relatives, you should honestly question whether that is for the best.
  • Family friends � Visits or outings with family friends can be a great outlet for sharing.
  • Teachers and school counselors � Educators will be able to monitor classroom behavior and prevent problems.
  • Faith-based counseling � Many religious organizations provide support for families.
  • Trained mental health professionals � A child or family therapist can help children work through their feelings one-on-one or in a counseling group.

Recognizing anger, anxiety, depression and traumatic stress in your kids

Sadness, anger and anxiety are normal responses to loss.  Love, reassurance and support for your children should allow them to heal, but sometimes factors beyond your control overwhelm your children and can create long term problems.  

Why is my child having such a hard time moving forward?

Many children go through their parents� divorce with relatively few problems, and others have a very difficult time. Significant changes in a child�s life can trigger the body�s fight-or-flight response � anger or fear � and if a child cannot adequately express or mentally process those emotions, the child may feel extremely powerless and �freeze.� This reaction is the basis of traumatic stress.

·         Anger - Your kids may express their anger, rage, and resentment with you and your spouse for destroying their sense of normalcy. Angry outbursts that continue or become violent may be signs that they need help coping with their feelings.

·         Anxiety - It is natural for children to feel anxious when faced with big changes in their lives. If they seem to be worrying endlessly about minor and major situations, or if their anxiety is causing eating and sleeping problems, they may need more support.

·         Depression - Sadness about the family�s new situation is normal. But sadness coupled with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness is likely to become depression. When children feel depressed they may withdraw from their parents or loved ones, neglect their homework, dissociate from friends and discontinue pleasurable activities. Their eating habits may change or they may engage in some form of self-destructive behavior or act out.   

·         Traumatic stress or shock - Trauma is determined by the child�s experience of the event, not simply the event itself. Different children in the same family may have dramatically different reactions to divorce. Trauma may cause depression and anxiety at the time of the separation or years later. It may also reoccur during weekends, holidays or times when the child misses the complete family unit.

Warning signs of more serious problems

If a child gets stuck in certain emotions, they may have a hard time getting �unstuck.� Fear and uncertainty affect kids in a variety of ways, and you should be attentive for behaviors that signal your child needs help. Your availability, willingness to listen and reassurance should help them, but sometimes outside help is necessary as well.  

Red flag

Recognize that it will take some time for your kids to work through their issues about the separation or divorce, but you should see gradual improvement over time. If things get worse rather than better after several months,that may be a sign that your child is stuck in depression, anxiety or anger and could use some additional support. Professional intervention may be necessary.  Cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful with anxiety and depression.

Watch for these warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety:

  • Sleep problems
  • Poor concentration, chronic forgetfulness, declining grades
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Self-injury, cutting

Related articles

Raising Kids with Your Ex:
Co-Parenting After a Separation or Divorce

Coping with a Breakup or Divorce:
Moving on After a Relationship Ends

More Helpguide articles:

Related links for Children and Divorce

General information

Helping Your Child Through a Divorce � Includes information on coping with divorce, how to tell a child, different reactions according to child�s age, adjusting to living arrangements, and dealing with the aftermath of divorce. See also Tips for Divorcing Parents for other suggestions about communicating with your child after a split. (Nemours Foundation)

Helping Children Understand Divorce � Provides tips for talking with children about coping with divorce and helps parents understand children's thoughts and feelings about divorce. Lists books (including some for very young children) and other resources to help families cope with divorce issues. There are also links to two articles for helping children, one addressing the needs of infants and toddlers, and the other on activities for children (art, letter writing, etc.). (University of Missouri)

Helping Children Adjust to Divorce: A Guide for Teachers also provides helpful tips for coping and guiding children through the transition time after a divorce. (University of Missouri)

For children and adolescents

Children of Divorce � Provides numerous links for children and parents and includes sections on art activities, books, how to talk to parents, what to do with anger, coping with parental arguments, and other similar topics to help children feel less alone and more capable of handling divorce. (Commercial site) (Kids� Turn Central)

A Kid�s Guide to Divorce � Answers children�s most common concerns and questions about divorce and offers suggestions for handling feelings. (Nemours Foundation)

Dealing with Divorce � An article for teens that discusses ways to cope with their feelings about their parents� divorce, how to talk with parents about concerns, suggests self-care and future planning. (Nemours Foundation)

How to Cope When Your Parents are Splitting Up � A site for children that includes advice about coping with divorce or separation. (ItsNotYourFault.org, National Children�s Home (NCH))

Children and separation: A guide for parents and others � This guide offers ways you can help children during separation as well as suggestions about making arrangements for the children. Australia

Divorce as trauma

Principles of Working with Traumatized Children � This article is by Dr. Bruce Perry, an internationally recognized expert on children and trauma, provides profiles of children who experience trauma and lists guidelines for communication following a traumatic event. Discusses trauma in general, rather than the trauma of divorce specifically, but helpful nonetheless. (Dr. Bruce Perry, Scholastic.com)

Overcoming Divorce Trauma � Discusses the damage that can occur in a divorce and suggests ways to prevent divorce trauma. Includes both book and film suggestions for helping parents and children understand and cope with divorce. (Kristina Diener, Psy.D.)

Gina Kemp, M.A., Rosemary Clandos, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.  contributed to this article. Last modified in January  09 .

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