Divorce can be wrenching when kids are involved, but there's a lot you can do to help children cope. If you're a parent dealing with divorce, try to remember that your child needs you now more than ever. Offering reassurance, hope, and a sense of stability can help ease the effects of divorce on children of all ages.
Children Coping With Divorce: Nine Dos and Don'ts
Isolina Ricci, PhD, a family therapist and author of Mom's House, Dad's House, says, "When children are free to love both of their parents without conflict of loyalty, to have access to them both without fear of losing either, they can get on with the totally absorbing business of growing up, on schedule."
Use these nine tips to help minimize the negative effects of divorce on your kids:
- Don't confide in your children about adult concerns like disagreements with your spouse or money worries. Find a friend or therapist to confide in instead.
- Don't "bad mouth" your ex. If you have a dispute with your ex-spouse, don't expose your children to your conflicts and frustration.
- Don't quiz your child about the other parent or what goes on at the other parent's house. It's fine to ask general questions about your child's time there, but don't snoop.
- Don't introduce major changes in your child's life if you can help it. Try to keep to your usual family routines and community ties.
- Do continue to parent as you always have. You may feel guilty that your kids have to cope with divorce, but it won't help to shower them with special gifts or let them stay up late. They'll feel more secure if you're firm and consistent.
- Do encourage kids to call the other parent when they have news or just to chat. Keep the other parent informed about school events and other activities.
- Do learn more about how to help your child cope with divorce. Many national organizations can help families understand the effect of divorce on children, such as the San Francisco-based nonprofit Kids' Turn, which offers workshops for kids and parents.
- Do get help for a child having trouble coping with divorce. A young child may show regressive behavior like excessive clinginess or bedwetting, while an older child may become angry, aggressive, withdrawn, depressed, or have problems in school. A therapist can provide a safe place for your child to express their feelings.
- Do seek help if you and your ex can't interact without hostility. A family therapist or professional mediator can help you develop a more friendly communication style -- one with fewer negative effects on your kids.
Since you may have years of co-parenting ahead of you, learning to get along with your ex may be the greatest gift you can give your child -- and the best way to help your child cope with divorce.
How to Ease the Effects of Divorce on Children
Even in homes where a marriage has been unhappy, children may not want their parents to divorce because they fear for their own security. From a child's point of view, the world is being torn in two. Try to see your child's perspective, so you'll be less likely to pressure them to disguise their feelings. Your child is more likely to thrive in a happy, calm environment than one that's tense and angry -- even if their parents are divorced.
Experts say that divorce does not have to cast a shadow over your children's entire lives, or keep them from having healthy relationships of their own in the future. As pediatric psychologist Elizabeth Ozer of the University of California, San Francisco, says, "The divorce of parents is a major life event, and it is something a child will be coping with well into adulthood. Having said that, kids can and do thrive after their parents' divorce. As a parent, your role is to do all you can to help your child weather his transition."
Most experts agree that two factors influence how well children cope with divorce:
- The level of hostility and conflict between parents
- Parental acceptance and adjustment to the break-up
Use these two guideposts in the months ahead as you and your ex-partner begin to set up separate lives. If you have a hostile relationship, or if either of you is having trouble accepting the break-up, take steps to improve the situation -- with professional help if necessary -- to help your child cope with divorce.
Susan S. Coats, a family law attorney in Marin County, California, who specializes in dispute resolution for families, urges divorcing parents to focus on the positive as they set about creating new lives. "Something is ending, yes, but at the same time you are starting something new," she says. "For your child's sake, you need to work as hard as you can to create two new families, and it will take both parents to make sure that the new families flourish."
Conversations to Help Kids Cope With Divorce
How you tell children about an impending divorce will have a lot to do with your child's age, your living situation, and the degree of tension between you and your ex.
If you have older children, give them some time to get used to the news by talking to them at least a month before you and your ex begin living apart. If your child is a toddler, you can wait to talk until a week or so before any big changes, since kids this age have little sense of time. Even very young children will be reassured if you acknowledge the upcoming change, even if they can't yet understand the precise meaning of your words.
Nine Guidelines for Talking With Kids About Divorce
- If at all possible, have both parents present for the discussion.
- Timing is key. Pick a relaxed time of day, when there are no impending commitments.
- Use simple language, and don't talk on and on. For example: "Your father and I have grown apart. We care about each other, but we don't want to be married anymore."
- Acknowledge that it's a sad situation and that your child is likely to experience big, painful feelings. Allow your child to cry, become angry, or have other natural reactions.
- Let kids know that you also feel sad. At the same time, reassure them that you and your ex-partner love them and will keep them safe, whether you're together or not.
- Children often feel responsible or blame themselves when their parents break up, so reassure your children that the divorce is not their fault.
- Give concrete details, if you can, about the new living arrangement. For example: "You'll be living with me every other weekend."
- Avoid blaming the other parent. Even if the break-up was triggered by one partner's affair or a substance abuse problem, this isn't the time to share adult problems with a child. Perhaps later, when kids are in their teenage years, you may want to share more information.
Try to answer all of your children's questions, and encourage them to keep asking questions in the days and weeks to come. Children younger than 8 tend to ask questions in a series. Answer each question, one at a time. Don't suggest more, or go on and on -- keep it simple and concrete. Then wait for the next question and answer that one.