Helping Your Child Cope with Divorce
The emotional distress surrounding a separation or divorce is already complicated enough for couples, but the added difficulty of explaining it to children makes the situation more stressful. You want to be honest, of course, but you also need to word the topic in a way that your children can understand. Using the right approach is crucial to their mental health and how they process the divorce. Read our seven tips on how to help kids cope with divorce.
1. How do I explain divorce to my child?
Explaining what divorce means can be an emotionally charged conversation. Young children may not understand what separation means. Older children, tweens, and teenagers may already have friends who are from divorced homes and have seen a myriad of difficulties such as spending time apart from parents, moving, schedule changes, fighting, and so forth.
Divorce can be explained as a “different type of family.” It is important that mom and dad stress that the family is not gone but has changed. It is also important for the children to know that even though the family has changed, your love for them is still the same.
2. How Much Do I Say to My Child?
Many children will have a lot of questions about the divorce. Separated parents will want to be on the same page about what to say to the children. It is an essential part of maintaining strong parent-child relationships. Parents should discuss what to say and how to address certain questions.
While you want to be honest, kids do not need to know the gritty details of a divorce. The “why” can be adultery, emotional abuse, incompatibility, growing apart, etc. However, kids do not need to know those details. What they need the most is a straightforward simple answer. You can explain that mom and dad are not happy living with each other and want to create two loving homes.
3. Give reassurance and Love
As you explain the upcoming divorce to your child, let them know it was an adult decision and is in no way their fault. Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute says, “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.” Both parents must reassure the children they are loved and that nothing will change that. Both parents should make sure to spend quality time to make their child feel like they still have that special parent/child bond.
4. Provide stability through the divorce
Schedules and routines provide a form of security for children. Changes can be scary and can cause a great deal of stress. It is a good idea to establish routines right away to support your children. We see kids struggle more if their parents are struggling to figure out how to co-parent and what that’s going to look like,” says Dr. Samar, a clinical psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute. “So, 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.”
Parents need to discuss the living arrangements and let the children know the schedule in place to see each parent. One effective parenting technique is to use a large wall calendar to mark days “Mom” and “Dad.”
5. Mental Health in the Divorce Process
Often, a child feels anger, frustration, denial, guilt, and grief after a separation. It is typical for strong emotions to come out at various times such as when a parent picks a child up for a scheduled visit or during the holidays when the family has two Christmas or Hannukah celebrations. It is essential for the children’s mental health to acknowledge their emotions and reassure them that you love them. It is also typical during this tough time to allow the child to talk to a counselor or trusted family members about their feelings and the divorce process.
It is very common for children to start acting out more as they deal with difficult emotions. They might start fights with siblings, refuse to do homework, or become defiant. One way to deal with this is by providing continuity and structure. Separated and divorced parents should work together to create the same expectations for both households as much as possible.
Another common occurrence is that children may need more attention from their parents. Some kids and teens will regress. They might ask for help in areas where they did not previously need help. Some examples are bed wetting, thumb sucking, or the inability to get ready for school.
Some children tend to withdraw or become more distant. They might spend more time in their rooms or not engage in conversation at the dinner table. Like anyone else, kids need space and privacy, however, it needs to be balanced with opportunities to interact. Offer to take them to a favorite local hangout or suggest a day trip. Above all, be available to listen. Even though they may not act like it, they need you at this difficult time.
If your child or teen is losing interest in activities that they used to enjoy, not wanting to spend time with friends, or hiding in their bedroom, try to encourage them to talk with you and do something pleasurable together. Please note that withdrawing may also be a sign of depression and adjustment disorder, which are common when a child experiences a divorce. If it continues then seek the professional help of a family therapist to help the child process the divorce.
Another common behavior with children and divorce is difficulty concentrating on schoolwork. Change is always difficult, and it can feel very chaotic and life may feel unstable. It is tough being a single parent but do your best to create predictable routines in both homes that include homework, meals, downtime, and sleep schedules. Open a conversation with teachers about the separation. That way if there are troubles in school good your child can get extra support at school if she needs it.
6. Avoid Blaming
One of the worst things you can do during a separation is talk badly about the other parent or blaming the individual. Even if you are furious with the other parent, never express your anger to a child. This can be difficult for many parents as divorces are a difficult thing. However, it’s important that parents always do their best to avoid talking negatively about the other parent.
Here is an example. One mom refers to “D-A-D” when talking to friends about what a terrible parent he is. She criticizes his parenting by saying that the children come home tired or dirty, or have not eaten well, or didn’t do their homework. She thinks that the children are too involved in play or a game and that they are not paying attention to her conversation. She is wrong. Kids listen to conversations, notice the tone, and clue in on code words used to complain about the other parent. Children are unconsciously making sense of it, and they internalize a belief that is unhealthy for them. The story or belief might be something like “Mom hates my dad,” or “Dad doesn’t know what he is doing.”
Children love and need both of their parents. Speaking badly of the other parent can lower your child’s self-esteem because they are a mixture of two parents. If one parent is so awful, what does that make them? Children need to feel both of their parents are capable, valuable and are doing what is in their best interest.
Domestic Violence in the Home
Domestic violence in the home is devastating. It is understandable to be afraid of an abusive spouse and fear for the safety of yourself and your children. Counseling from a trained professional can support the mental health of you and the children. Seek help from local authorities and get a good lawyer. When you speak about the separation, keep the language plain and simple. Focusing on “being safe” and “protection” are good words to use.
7. Good Parenting During a Divorce
Being a single parent can be challenging. Suddenly, you are the only adult in the home and that can feel overwhelming. However, effective parenting will make the situation easier. Here are a few ideas on how to minimize disruptions and take care of your family.
Model calmness and dealing with problems proactively. Keep conflict with the mom or dad away from the children as much as possible.
Learning how to co-parent can be difficult and there may be disagreements between you and your spouse. You may need to make concessions or take turns making decisions. It is vital to be on the same page in front of your child. Model how to handle conflict in a constructive manner. If your ex-spouse won’t cooperate then make sure your home is calm and routines are set. You do not have control over what the other parent does or does not do during their time with your kids.
Research community support groups for you and the children. There may be resources through school. Many schools have programs for children who are going through a divorce. A faith-based organization may also have resources.
Find a support group for yourself too. Being a single or separated parent can be stressful and exhausting. It can be very helpful to talk with other moms and dads who can relate to your stresses.
Also, take care of your own mental health needs. Contact your friends and family if you are feeling overwhelmed. People want to help but may not know how. Make a list of things other people can do for you. You may need a carpool, babysitting, or just a night out of the house to relax. Also, a therapist can make the transition easier. You can best take care of your child if you are stable and supported.
Handle With Care
Children have a wide range of emotions and reactions to divorce, which is why it’s important to handle them with care. So, by showing them love and affection, having open communication, setting routines, collaborating with your ex-spouse on co-parenting, taking care of yourself, and following these tips, you can help make the transition a bit easier.