Divorce can cause children strong and negative feelings, such as anxiety, confusion, and sadness. No matter their age, children can feel insecure and angry about mom and dad’s breakup. As parents, you can make the process less painful for your children. You can help your children cope with divorce by providing stability in your home and meeting their needs by adopting a reassuring and positive attitude. Undoubtedly, divorce won’t be an easy process, but these tips can help your children deal with it more smoothly.
Parents’ guide to supporting children during divorce
As parents, it is normal to feel uncertain about how you will provide your children with appropriate support during divorce or separation.
There are many ways you can help your children adapt to separation. Your patience, the sense of security you provide to the child, and active listening can minimize tension as children learn to cope with new conditions. By creating routines on which children can rely, you remind children that they can rely on you for stability, structure, and care. If it is possible to maintain a functional relationship with the ex-spouse, you can help children avoid the stress caused by the parents’ conflict. Inevitably there will be difficulties at this transitional stage, but you can drastically reduce your children’s mental pain by making their well-being your priority.
What I Need From Mom and Dad: A Child’s Wish List
· I need you both to be a part of my life. Please write letters, call me and ask me a lot of questions. When you’re not involved in my life, I feel like I’m not important, and you don’t love me.
· Please stop fighting and try hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters that concern me. When you argue about me, I think I did something wrong, and I feel guilty.
· I want to love you both and enjoy the time I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time I spend with you. If you are jealous or upset, I feel I have to take the side of one of the two and love one parent more than the other.
· Please communicate directly with each other so that I don’t have to transfer messages from one to the other.
· When you talk about my other parent, please say beautiful things or say nothing at all. When you say bad and rude things about my other parent, I feel like you expect me to take your side.
· Remember, I want you both to be a part of my life. I rely on my mom and dad to raise me, teach me what’s important, and help me when I’m in trouble.
What to tell the children
When it comes time to talk to children about divorce, many parents freeze. You can facilitate the discussion for both you and the children by preparing before you sit down to talk to the children. If you can anticipate difficult questions, deal with your concerns in advance, and carefully plan what you should tell them, you’ll be better equipped to help kids manage the news.
What to say and how to say it:
As difficult as it is, you should try to condescend and give the child honest and friendly explanations.
· Tell the truth. Your children have a right to know why you are getting a divorce, but lengthy explanations can tire them out. Say something simple and honest, such as “We can no longer agree.” You may need to remind your children that although sometimes parents do not find each other, they still love each other as much as the children.
· Say “I love you.” As simple as it sounds, letting kids know that your love for them has not changed is a strong message. Tell them that you will continue to take care of them in every way, from making them breakfast to helping them with their homework.
· Inform them about the changes that are about to happen. Catch up with your children’s questions about the changes that will occur in their lives, recognizing that some things will be different now and others will remain as they were. Let them know that you will deal with any issue that arises together.
It is vital, to be honest with the children, but without criticizing your husband. That can be especially difficult, especially when painful events such as infidelity have preceded it, but you can avoid the blame game with a little diplomacy.
· Present a “united front.” As much as you can, try to agree in advance on the explanations, you will give the children about the divorce and insist on them.
· Schedule your conversations. Organize a plan to talk to the children before any changes in living conditions take place. Try to speak when the husband is present, if possible.
· Show restraint. Respect your husband when you refer to the reasons for the separation.
How much information can you give the children?
Especially at the beginning of the separation, you have to choose how many things you tell the children. Think carefully about how each piece of information will affect them.
· Watch the age of the children. In general, younger children need less detail and manage better a simple explanation, while older children may need more information.
· Share the “technical” information. Tell the children about the changes that will take place in their lives, at school, or in activities, but don’t overload them with details.
· Make sure you’re honest. It does not matter how much information you decide to give to children, but remember that this information should be, above all, trustworthy.
Listen and confirm
Support children by helping them express their feelings and listen to them without being defensive. The next thing you need to do is confirm – allay fears, solve misunderstandings and show your boundless love. And most importantly: children need to know that divorce is not their fault.
Help children express their feelings
Children can perceive divorce as a loss: the loss of a parent, the loss of life as they knew it. You can help your children “grieve” and adapt to new circumstances by supporting their feelings.
· Listen. Please encourage your children to share their feelings and listen to them for real. They may feel sadness, anxiety, or frustration about things you didn’t see. Help them find the words to express themselves. It is usual for children to have difficulties in expressing their feelings. You can help them by observing their mood and encouraging them to talk.
· Let them be honest. Children may be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Let them know that whatever they say is okay. If they cannot share their real feelings, they may have to work to deal with them.
· Recognize their feelings. You may not be able to fix their problems or turn grief into happiness, but it is essential to recognize emotions rather than overlook them. You can also inspire confidence and a sense of security by showing that you understand.
Many children believe they played a role in the divorce, as they recall moments when they fought with their parents, got bad grades, or created problems. You can help children overcome this misconception.
· Restore the truth. Repeat the reasons why you’re getting a divorce. Sometimes, hearing the real reason for this decision can help.
· Be patient. Children can accept it one day and be uncertain the next. Deal with the confusion that children feel or misunderstandings with patience.
· Reassure them. As often as necessary, remind the children that you will both continue to love them and that they are not responsible for the divorce.
Give children confidence and love
Children have a remarkable ability to “heal” when they receive the love and support they need. Your words, actions, and ability to remain consistent are essential tools to reassure your children of your unchanging love.
· Both parents will be there. Let the children know that although family unity’s physical conditions will change, they will continue to have healthy and cherished relationships with both parents.
· Everything will be fixed. Tell the kids it won’t always be easy, but they’ll make it. Knowing that everything will be okay encourages children to give the new situation a chance.
· Proximity. Physical proximity – in the form of hugs, shoulder blows, or simple proximity – is a powerful means of reassuring children about your love.
· Be honest. When children express concerns or fears, respond honestly. If you don’t know the answer, you can politely say you’re not sure now, but you’ll find out, and it’ll be okay.
Providing stability and structure
While it is good for children to learn to be flexible, adapting to many new things at once can prove particularly difficult. Help children adapt to change by providing as much stability and structure as possible in their daily lives.
Remember that establishing structure and continuity does not mean that you need rigorous programs or that mom and dad’s routine should be precisely the same. But by creating some regular habits in every household and consistently announcing to your children what to expect, you will provide them with a sense of calm and stability.
The comfort of routine
The benefit of schedules and organization for younger children is widely recognized, but many people do not realize that older children also appreciate routine. Children feel more confident and safe when they know what to expect. Knowing that even when houses change, for example, dinner is followed by bathing and reading, children’s lives are more easily regulated and organized.
Maintaining routine also means that you continue to abide by your children’s rules, rewards, and discipline. Please resist the temptation to spoil children because of separation by not imposing limits that allow them to break the rules.
Take care of yourself
The first safety instruction in case of an emergency on the plane is to put the oxygen mask on you before you put it on your child. That means that you have to take care of yourself to be next to the children.
If you can remain calm and emotionally present, your children will be more comfortable. The following are steps you can take to improve your well-being and tranquility.
· Frequent exercise and a healthy diet. Exercise relieves the additional stress and frustration that accompany divorce. And if cooking is a difficult task for someone, healthy eating will make you feel better, internally and externally – so avoid “fast food.”
· Arrange frequent meetings with your friends. It may be tempting to avoid contact with friends and relatives who will inevitably ask about the divorce, but the truth is that you need to distract yourself from the divorce and move on with your life. Ask your friends to avoid touching on this issue; they will understand.
· Keep a diary. Recording your feelings, thoughts, and temper can help you release tension, sadness, and anger. As time goes by, you can look back to see how far you’ve come.
You’ll need support
At best, divorce is complicated and stressful – and can be devastating without support.
· Rely on your friends. Talk to friends or a support group about bitterness, anger, frustration – whatever feeling you feel – so that you don’t externalize it to your children.
· Never discharge your negative feelings to children. Whatever you do, don’t use your kids to talk, just like you’d talk to a friend.
· Don’t stop laughing. Try to put humor and play in your own and your children’s lives as much as you can. Laughter can relieve stress and provide you with a way out of grief and anger.
· See a therapist. If you feel intense anger, fear, sadness, shame, or guilt, find a professional to help you “work” with those feelings.
‘Work’ with ex-husband
The conflict between parents – separated and not – can be very damaging to children. It is crucial to avoid putting children in the middle of your disputes or making them feel like they have to choose between the two of you.
Remember that your purpose is to avoid permanent stress and pain for your children. The following tips can save them from a lot of heartaches.
· Go somewhere else. Never argue in front of children, either face-to-face or over the phone. Ask the ex-husband to talk at another time or stop the conversation altogether.
· Be discreet. Avoid talking to children about details about the other parent’s behavior. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
· Be friendly and kind in your interactions with your ex-husband. That not only gives an excellent example to your children but also challenges the ex-husband to be equally kind.
· Look at the bright side. Focus on the positives and strengths of all family members. Encourage children to do the same.
· Work the relationship with the ex-husband. Make it your priority to develop a friendly relationship with him as soon as possible. Seeing you be friendly with each other, children will feel safer and learn how to solve problems.
The wider picture
If you catch yourself, at times, locked in a dispute with your ex about parenting details, try to take a step back to remember the deeper purpose of divorce.
· The relationship with both parents. The best thing for your children, in the long run, is to have a good relationship with both their parents throughout their lives.
· The long-term perspective. If you can keep in mind your long-term goals – children’s physical and mental health, your independence, you will be able to avoid disagreements about everyday details. Think about the future to stay calm.
· The well-being of all. Your children’s happiness, yours, and even your former partner should be the ultimate goal of your new life after divorce.
Identify when you need to look for help
Some children face divorce with a few related problems, while others go through tough times. It is usual for children to feel a range of challenging and negative emotions, but time, love, and affirmation will help them cope. If your children, however, remain devastated, you may need to seek professional help.
Physiological reactions to separation and divorce
Although strong emotions can be difficult and challenging for children, the following reactions can be considered normal for children.
· Anger. Children may express anger, anger, and resentment for you and your husband for “destroying” the sense of normality.
· Anxiety. It is natural for children to feel anxious when faced with significant changes in their lives.
· Mild depression. Grief about the new state of the family is normal, and suffering combined with a sense of despair is likely to develop into a mild form of depression.
It will take some time for your children to process the issue of separation, but you should see gradual improvement over time.
Warning signs for more serious problems
If things get worse rather than better after a few months, it can be a sign that your child is “stuck” in depression, anxiety, or anger and could use some additional support. Notice these warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety:
· Sleep problems
· Poor concentration
· Problems at school
· Alcohol or drug abuse
· Eating disorders
· Often violent outbursts
· Withdrawal from loved ones
· Deny favorite activities
Discuss these or other warning signs related to separation with a mental health specialist, teachers, or counselor to deal with these problems.
Kemp, G., Smith, M., Segal, J. (2013). Children and Divorce: Helping Kids Cope with Separation and Divorce.