Dealing with Divorce

As your children’s parents, you have a unique opportunity to set the tone for how they’re going to deal with your divorce from the very moment you first tell the kids about your separation. No matter where you are in the process—whether the separation is startlingly fresh, or whether you’re already several months into the healing process—these tips will help you anticipate and cope with the effects of divorce on kids.

Encourage your child to discuss their feelings about what is happening.

Although kids may struggle with a divorce for quite some time, the real impact is usually felt over about a 2- to 3-year period. During this time, some will be able to voice their feelings but, depending on their age and development, other kids just won’t have the words. They may instead act out or be depressed. For school-age kids, this is usually evident when their grades drop or they lose interest in activities. For younger children, these feelings are often expressed during play, too.

Make it a point to sit down with your kids and encourage them to say what they’re thinking and feeling. Be prepared to answer questions your kids might raise or to address their concerns. It may be tempting to tell a child not to feel a certain way, but kids (and adults, for that matter) have a right to their feelings. And if you try to force a “happy face,” your kids may be less likely to share their true feelings with you.

Tell your child that the divorce is not their fault.

Most likely, you have told your child that the divorce is not their fault. It is important to reassure them of this fact often as kids learn from repeating a message over and over.

Don’t bad-mouth your ex in front of the kids, even if you’re still angry or feuding.

This is one of the hardest things to do. But it’s important not to say bad things about your ex. Doing so often backfires and kids get angry at the parent who is saying the bad things. No child likes to hear a parent criticized, even if it is by the other parent. It’s equally important to acknowledge real events. If, for example, one spouse has simply abandoned the family by moving out, you need to acknowledge what has happened. It isn’t your responsibility to explain the ex-spouse’s behavior—let him or her do so with the kids.

Try not to use kids as messengers or go-betweens, especially when you’re feuding.

Kids don’t need to feel that they must act as messengers between hostile parents or carry one adult’s secrets or accusations about another. Don’t question your child about what is happening in the other household — kids resent it when they feel that they’re being asked to “spy” on the other parent. Wherever possible, communicate directly with the other parent about relevant matters, such as scheduling, visitation, health issues, or school problems.

Minimize the changes your teenager will have to go through after a divorce.

Try not to change schools or take away activities that they are used to doing. Allow them to keep the relationships with grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Send a clear message that even though their family structure has changed, ‘family’ is still important.

Continue to parent well.

Do not make the mistake of going soft on your kids right now. Even though they’re coping with the effects of divorce and family change, they truly need continued boundaries, discipline, and expectations. In fact, being consistent and following through sends children of divorce a critical message: that the adults in their lives believe they are capable of handling what is happening. Try to come up with a plan between you and your ex-spouse to use consistent discipline in both homes.

Expect resistance as kids adjust to a new boyfriend/girlfriend.

New relationships and remarriages are among the most difficult aspects of the divorce process. A new, blended family doesn’t eliminate the impact of divorce—in fact, research shows that kids in these new families experience problems similar to those who remain with a single parent. It’s important to assure kids that they still have a mother and father who care for them and to help them adjust to a new family structure. Don’t expect kids to accept a stepparent as another parent right away, though—that will take time. The initial role of a stepparent is that of another caring adult in a child’s life. Tell kids that the stepparent needs to be respected the same way that they respect teachers, coaches, and other adults who help them.

Seek support groups, friendships, and counseling. Single parents need all the help they can get.

Support from friends, relatives, and groups such as Parents Without Partners can help parents and their kids adjust to separation and divorce. Kids can meet others who’ve developed successful relationships with separated parents and can confide in each other, while adults need special support through these trying times.

Whenever possible, kids should be encouraged to have as positive an outlook on both parents as they can. Even under the best of circumstances, separation and divorce can be painful and disappointing for many kids.

And, of course, it’s emotionally difficult for the parents. So it’s understandable that, despite their best intentions, some parents might broadcast their pain and anger. But parents who can foster a positive adjustment and good times, even during difficult circumstances, will go a long way toward helping their kids—and themselves—adapt and move on.

For more information and how to tell your kids about your impending divorce, click here.
For a guide on divorce written for kids, click here.
For a list of the top 10 books for parenting through divorce, click here.