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Helping Your Child Through a Divorce

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Thousands of kids experience the stress of divorce each year. How they'll react depends on their age, personality, and the particular circumstances of the separation and divorce process.

Every divorce will have an effect on the kids involved — and many times the initial reaction is one of shock, sadness, frustration, anger, or worry. But kids can also come out of it better able to cope with stress, and many become more flexible, tolerant young adults.

The most important things that both parents can do to help kids through this difficult time are:

Most adults going through separation and divorce need support — from friends, professionals, clergy, and family. Don't seek support from your kids, even if they seem to want you to.

Breaking the News

As soon as you're certain of your plans, talk to your kids about your decision to live apart. Although there's no easy way to break the news, if possible have both parents present for this conversation. It's important to try to leave feelings of anger, guilt, or blame out of it. Practice how you're going to manage telling your kids so you don't become upset or angry during the talk.

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 is not the kids' fault. Most kids will feel they are to blame even after parents have said that they are not. So it's vital for parents to keep providing this reassurance.

Tell your kids that sometimes adults change the way they love each other or can't agree on things and so they have to live apart. But remind them that kids and parents are tied together for life, by birth or adoption. Parents and kids often don't agree on things, but that is part of the circle of life — parents and kids don't stop loving each other or get divorced from each other.

Give kids enough information to prepare them for the upcoming changes in their lives. Try to answer their questions as truthfully as possible. Remember that kids don't need to know all the reasons behind a divorce (especially if it involves blaming the other parent). It's enough for them just to understand what will change in their daily routine, and — just as important — what will not.

With younger kids, it's best to keep it simple. You might say something like: "Mom and dad are going to live in different houses so they don't fight so much, but we both love you very much."

Older kids and teens may be more in tune with what parents have been going through, and may have more questions based on what they've overheard and picked up on from conversations and fights.

Handling Kids' Reactions

Tell kids who are upset about the news that you recognize and care about their feelings and reassure them that all of their upset feelings are perfectly OK and understandable. You might say: "I know this is very upsetting for you. Can we try to think of something that would make you feel better?" or "We both love you and are sorry that we have to live apart."

Not all kids react right away. Let yours know that's OK too, and there will be other times to talk when they're ready. Some kids try to please their parents by acting as if everything is fine, or try to avoid any difficult feelings by denying that they feel any anger or sadness at the news. Sometimes stress comes out in other ways — at school, or with friends, or in changes to their appetite, behavior or sleep patterns.

Whether your kids express fear, worry, or relief about your separation and divorce, they'll want to know how their own day-to-day lives might change.

Be prepared to answer these and other questions:

Being honest is not always easy when you don't have all the answers, or when kids are feeling scared or guilty about what's going on. It's always the right thing to do to tell them what they need to know at that moment.

Helping Kids Cope

Many kids — and parents — grieve the loss of the kind of family they had hoped for, and kids especially miss the presence of a parent and the family life they had. That's why it's common and very natural for some kids to hold out hope that their parents will someday get back together — even after the finality of divorce has been explained to them.

Mourning the loss of a family is normal, but over time both you and your kids will come to accept the new situation. So reassure them that it's OK to wish that mom and dad will reunite, but also explain the finality of your decisions.

Here are some ways to help kids cope with the upset of a divorce:

The Importance of Consistency

Consistency and routine can go a long way toward providing comfort and familiarity that can help your family during this major life change. When possible, minimize unpredictable schedules, transitions, or abrupt separations.

Especially during a divorce, kids will benefit from one-on-one time with each parent. No matter how inconvenient, try to accommodate your ex-partner as you figure out visitation schedules.

It's natural that you'll be concerned about how a child is coping with this change. The best thing that you can do is trust your instincts and rely on what you know about your kids. Do they seem to be acting differently than usual? Is a child doing things like regressing to younger behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting? Do emotions seem to be getting in the way of everyday routines, like school and social life?

Behavioral changes are important to watch out for — any new or changing signs of moodiness; sadness; anxiety; school problems; or difficulties with friends, appetite, and sleep can be signs of a problem.

Older kids and teens may be vulnerable to risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, skipping school, and defiant acts. Regardless of whether such troubles are related to the divorce, they are serious problems that affect a teen's well-being and indicate the need for outside help.

Fighting in Front of the Kids

Although the occasional argument between parents is expected in any family, living in a battleground of continual hostility and unresolved conflict can place a heavy burden on a child. Screaming, fighting, arguing, or violence can make kids fearful and apprehensive.

Witnessing parental conflict presents an inappropriate model for kids, who are still learning how to deal with their own relationships. Kids whose parents maintain anger and hostility are much more likely to have continued emotional and behavioral difficulties that last beyond childhood.

Talking with a mediator or divorce counselor can help couples air their grievances and hurt to each other in a way that doesn't cause harm to their children. Though it may be difficult, working together in this way will spare kids the hurt caused by continued bitterness and anger.

Adjusting to a New Living Situation

Because divorce can be such a big change, adjustments in living arrangements should be handled gradually.

Several types of living situations should be considered:

Which one is right for your kids? That's a tough question and often the one that couples spend most time disagreeing on. Although some kids can thrive spending half their time with each parent, others seem to need the stability of having one "home" and visiting with the other parent. Some parents choose to both remain in the same home — but this only works in the rarest of circumstances and in general should be avoided.

Whatever arrangement you choose, your child's needs should come first. Avoid getting involved in a tug of war as a way to "win." When deciding how to handle holidays, birthdays, and vacations, stay focused on what's best for the kids. It's important for parents to resolve these issues themselves and not ask the kids to choose.

During the preteen years, when kids become more involved with activities apart from their parents, they may need different schedules to accommodate their changing priorities. Ideally, kids benefit most from consistent support from both parents, but they may resist equal time-sharing if it interrupts school or their social lives. Be prepared for their thoughts on time-sharing, and try to be flexible.

Your child may refuse to share time with you and your spouse equally and may try to take sides. If this occurs, as hard as it is, try not to take it personally. Maintain the visitation schedule and emphasize the importance of the involvement of both parents.

Kids sometimes propose spending an entire summer, semester, or school year with the noncustodial parent. But this may not reflect that they want to move. Listen to and explore these options if they're brought up. This kind of arrangement can work well in "friendly" divorces, but is not typical of higher-conflict situations.

Parenting Under Pressure

As far as is possible, both parents should work toward maximizing consistency in routine and discipline across both households. Similar expectations regarding bedtimes, rules, and homework will reduce anxiety, especially in younger children.

Wherever possible, work with the other parent to maintain consistent rules — and even when you can't enforce them in your ex-partner's home, you can stick to them in yours.

It's important to maintain as much normalcy as possible after a divorce by keeping regular routines, including mealtimes, house rules about behavior, and discipline. Relaxing limits, especially during a time of change, tends to make kids insecure and reduces your chances of regaining appropriate parental authority later.

Resist the urge to drop routines and spoil kids upset about a divorce by letting them break rules or not enforcing limits. You should feel free to lavish affection on them — kids don't get spoiled by too many hugs or comforting words. But buying things to replace love or allowing kids to act any way they want is not in their best interests, and you could struggle to reel them back in once the dust settles.

Divorce can be a major crisis for a family. However, if you and your former spouse can work together and communicate civilly for the benefit of your children, the original family unit can continue to be a source of strength, even if stepfamilies enter the picture.

So remember to:

Changes of any kind are hard — know that you and your kids can and will adjust to this one. Finding your inner strength and getting help to learn new coping skills are hard work, but can make a big difference to helping your family get through this difficult time.

Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: January 2011

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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