How to Help Children Cope with Divorce
By Barb Grady MC, NCC
Divorce can be a devastating experience for all involved. It harms children if one parent becomes less accessible, if children are exposed to economic hardship and if there is parental conflict. Are there factors that make divorce more stressful for some children than others? How does divorce influence development? The most convincing answers to these questions came from the research by Amato and Keith (1991), who integrated the results of almost 100 studies involving more than 13,000 preschool-through college age children. In all areas they reviewed, including school achievement, conduct, adjustment, self-concept, and parent-child relations, children whose parents divorced fared poorly compared to children from intact families. However, the effects of divorce were greater in the 1970’s and 1980’s than they are today, as divorce became more frequent and familiar.
Impact of Divorce on Children
Aspect of Divorce Impact
- What is affected? Children’s school achievement, their
conduct, psychological adjustment, self-concept and relationships with their parents
- Who is most affected? School-age children and adolescents-
children who are temperamentally emotional and children prone to interpret events negatively
- Why is divorce harmful? One parent is less accessible as a role
model, single-parent families experience more economic hardship, conflict between parents is distressing to children
Life for children after divorce is not all gloom and doom. Children can adjust to their new circumstances and there are factors that can ease the transition. Children adjust more readily if their divorced parents cooperate with each other, especially on disciplinary matters. Research shows that children benefit from joint custody if their parents get along.
It’s easy for parents to be overwhelmed themselves with feelings about the divorce. It can be hard to focus on the needs of your child/ren. Please remember that children are also overwhelmed and need extra time and support. Children often feel confused, guilty, angry, and scared. These feelings are natural. Parents need to communicate to their children about what will be happening and reassure them that they are not to blame.
Some Typical Reactions
- Feelings of guilt that it’s their fault, that somehow if they had been better behaved, more loving, or an easier child their parents wouldn’t have as many troubles.
- Feelings of fear. Fear can be related to the thought of possibly being abandoned, to changes in financial status following the divorce, the threat or reality of moving to a new home or school, fears of never seeing a non-custodial parent again, concern about how they will interact with both parents, or who they will live with.
- Feelings of confusion. Especially younger children may not really understand what divorce means. They may not understand that divorce usually means that mom and dad do not get back together ever. Confusion can also arise if the parents have separated and re-united in the past of if the child believes that they might get back together.
- Feelings of desire for their parents to get back together. They may engage in “schemes” aimed at bringing their parents back together.
- Feelings of sadness and depression. Children may feel sad over the loss of the family, unlovable, or may feel like they don’t do anything right.
- Children in blended families often fear that remarriage will disrupt the relationship they have with their biological parent.
Explaining Divorce to Children
There is no one right way to explain to your child that you are getting a divorce. Much of how you explain it depends on factors such as how old your children are, whether they already have a sense that divorce is coming, (i.e. parents have separated in the past, there has been much fighting in the home, the child has asked questions about divorce, etc.) and individual thoughts and feelings that the child has about divorce.
Remember that divorce is a process, not a single event. It is likely that you won’t be able to have one conversation with your children and get every issue out in the open and resolved. Be prepared for your children to have questions/concerns or behaviors for up to a year or longer. Regardless of how you tell your children about divorce, some things should be stated many times (during and after the divorce) to all children in order to make them feel safe, supported and loved.
- Be honest to an age appropriate level. Let your child know about the changes in visitation, living arrangements, etc. Children need simple, straightforward answers without feeling like they or either parent is “bad.” Use words that your child will be able to understand. There are excellent books from the library that can assist you.
- Listen to your child. He/she is likely to have questions related to the divorce and how it will affect them. It’s important to give your child time to talk about their thoughts/feelings without interrupting. Listen from a place of understanding your child’s perspective. Whenever possible have both parents available to talk to children. Be prepared to answer questions such as:
- Who will I live with?
- Will I ever see my other parent?
- Will we have to move?
- Why did this happen?
- I thought marriage was supposed to last forever?
- Is it my fault?
- If I am good will you get back together?
- Tell your child often how much you love them and that the divorce is not their fault. Make sure you spend time with them during and after the divorce process.
- Children feel better if parents can be respectful with each other. Negative comments made about the other parent damage your child. It tells them that a part of them is not OK. Pressure to choose sides only adds to the difficulty of adjusting to divorce.
- Reassure them that they are not going to be abandoned. These reassurances may need to be repeated frequently.
- Avoid trying to give a “quick fix” to problems. Allow your child to feel and express their emotions. Children need to know that they will get through the divorce, but that their parents understand it may be hard for them.
- Whenever possible let your child know that both their parents will still be involved in their lives and see them often. However, do not say this if it won’t be possible. Do not give your child false hopes or lie to them.
After the Divorce: Ways to Provide Your Child with Love and Support
Once the immediate effects of the divorce have occurred and life has begun to settle into a routine of sorts, your child will continue to need extra time, love, and support. Be prepared for children to show some reactions to the divorce for over a year or more. Here are some ways to support your child following a divorce:
- Be alert to signs of distress. Watch for behaviors such as nightmares, crying, clinging to one or both parents, efforts to get parents together, changes in school behavior, or feelings of guilt.
- Alert the school counselor and child’s teacher. Tap into counseling services through the school and community.
- Be consistent. Children will need a structure and routine to their day now more than ever to feel safe and supported. Settle into a stable environmental situation as soon as possible. If moving is involved, try to make sure you child gets to choose some things about the new apartment, house and bedroom. Try to have as many familiar objects around as possible to help ease the transition.
- Continue to avoid speaking negatively about the other parent in front of the child or to those who may repeat what you said to the child. I realize how difficult this can be, but know that negative comments damage your child.
- Avoid sending messages through your child to your ex-spouse or ask them to “spy” on the other parent. This places the child in the middle and is an unhealthy communication pattern.
- Continue to reinforce to your child that he/she is not to blame. Children may need reassurance for a couple of years that they did not cause the divorce and could do nothing to stop it.
- Avoid using your child as a sounding board or confidant. It’s easy to turn to them to talk about worries, concerns, or anger regarding divorce. It’s important that you remain the parent and avoid talking to your child as an adult or expect adult behavior from your child.
- Encourage your child to have a relationship with the other parent. Support time with the other parent and do not make your child feel guilty abut having fun with the other parent. It’s important that your child feel like he/she can be open about a relationship with both parents.
- Both parents should continue to be involved in their child’s life whenever possible. Though you may feel stressed and overwhelmed with the divorce process, your child will continue to need you to help with homework, attend school functions, play games, etc.
- Expect that your child will want parents to get back together. Let him/her know that it’s normal to have these wishes, but that it’s very unlikely that parents ever get back together and that’s OK too.
Remember that if you or your child has difficulty dealing with the divorce, counseling may be a necessary. A counselor in the community or the school counselor may be able to help you and your child cope with the feelings associated with the divorce.