No matter how amicable the divorce is, if children are a part of the picture, divorce is going to affect them.
Divorce causes a lot of change in children’s worlds, so it’s important to acknowledge the feelings and emotions they’re experiencing along the way. While you move through the stages of divorce, your child may also need some assistance. Wondering how to help a child deal with a divorce?
Whether you seek child divorce counseling, or you’re able to help them on your own, it’s essential that kids really feel like they’re going to be OK. Knowing how to deal with divorce is hard. You want them to know that you’ll be there for them, you love them, and you’re still a family.
The first and probably most important thing to know about children and divorce is you want to make sure they understand what’s going on. Children need to know that yes, you and your partner are splitting up, but they’re still your priority. They’ll be safe and loved by both parents every step of the way. Tell them that despite the changes coming their way, you’re going to do everything you can for them.
“Talk with your pediatrician or a child mental health specialist to get information about where your child is developmentally and what is and isn’t appropriate to share for their age and stage. For instance, a younger child may get overwhelmed with the details of a custody agreement, whereas an older child may want to know how the living situation may affect their extracurricular activities. No matter what stage they are in, you want to be as honest and as open as you can be.”
How Does Divorce Affect Children
How does divorce affect children emotionally? The honest answer is it really just depends on their personality and how old they are. Of course, you need to discuss your divorce with your children, but you also want to recognize that their age will play an important role in exactly how you have those conversations. By keeping things age-specific and appropriate, you already know a lot about how to help a child deal with a divorce. In fact, that’s the first step towards helping them overcome any anxiety or divorce depression they may experience.
How do children show stress?
Younger than three
Children who are younger than three years of age can react to divorce quite differently than an older child might. Young children may cry more than normal, be extra irritable, have tummy problems, or even start to regress when it comes to their sleep patterns.
These changes may stem from a fear of the future and not wanting to be separated from their parents. Children at this age may even begin to act younger than they are. Bedwetting is common for younger children, too.
“Young children under 3 could show stress through developmental regression, meaning they can begin to struggle with milestones they’d previously mastered such as toilet training and sleeping through the night. School-aged children may exhibit stress through aggression, isolation, a decrease in appetite, and a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Adolescents and teens can exhibit their stress through a decrease of 2 or more letter grades in a semester, or by participating in risky behaviors and self-harm,” – Talkspace therapist Catherine Richardson, MA, LPC.
If your children are between the ages of 4-5 when you’re going through a divorce, you might see them begin to blame themselves for the split. They are probably confused about what’s happening. But be patient, as this age group can have a difficult time using their words to express how they’re feeling.
They may show signs of separation anxiety, can become clingy, and might begin to worry about being abandoned. It’s common for them to act out, and it’s very normal for them to harbor fantasies about you and your partner reconciling.
Children who are school-aged may have a difficult time accepting that the divorce is really happening. They may struggle to come to terms with that it’s going to be a permanent thing and there will be family change. School-aged children often openly grieve about a divorce, and as a result, they might start to struggle in school.
Like children who are 4-5 years old, school-age children also tend to blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. At this age, some will feel like they should be punished. They may also feel rejected by whichever parent they’re not with at any given moment.
Adolescents and teens
For adolescents and teens, divorce can be difficult as they’ll likely have very firm opinions on the reasons for the split. It’s more common for teenagers than younger children to side with one parent and blame the other.
Although, it’s important to remember that, even if they’re older teens, they’re not as strong as they would like you to believe. As a result of their parents divorcing, teens may suffer in their own friendships and relationships, and their self-esteem may be impacted as well. They might act out, start using substances, and even begin experimenting with sex as they grapple with a divorce.
How to Help Your Child Cope With Divorce
There are several ways you can help your child cope with your divorce. Your responses and actions along the way are going to be key. There are things you should do, but there are also things that you shouldn’t do in front of your child.
Keep in mind that age will be a determining factor in how you should react in front of a child during a divorce.
What you should say and do for your child during your divorce:
- Start the conversation early. As soon as you know the divorce is definitely going to happen, you want to begin talking with your child.
- Consider getting your child divorce counseling to help them.
- Make sure to explicitly and repeatedly remind the child that this divorce is not their fault.
- Ask about any fears or worries they might have as a result of the divorce. And then, make sure that you’re listening to what they say.
- Keep a warm, loving, and reassuring tone in your voice as you have conversations about the divorce.
- Try to keep routines stable and consistent. Familiarity can be comforting. Sports practices and games should go on as much as possible. Music lessons or dance classes should continue. Stability is key to your child feeling safe.
- Remain respectful of your spouse’s values and rules.
- Try to keep consistent rules at both houses.
- When your child leaves to go to your partner’s home or to spend time with them, be positive and excited for your child.
What you should not say and do for your child during your divorce:
- Even if your divorce is contentious, do your best not to show anger towards your spouse.
- Don’t express blame towards your partner in front of your child.
- Try not to share any of the other parent’s bad behavior.
- Never use your child as a messenger. It’s very important that children don’t feel caught between their parents.
- Don’t make your child feel guilty for leaving you. It’s likely they’ll already be feeling that way on their own. Seeing that you’re OK can help them.
- It may be difficult but refrain from criticizing or talking badly about your spouse or former spouse, even if you’re divorcing a narcissist.
- Try not to argue or fight in front of the children.
- Don’t press your child to talk about the divorce. Offer an outlet and make sure they feel safe coming to you, but remember that children will most often ask questions when they are ready and in their own time.
- Keep your divorce conversations private. You may need to vent, and that’s actually healthy (for you), but don’t do so within earshot of your child.
- Try not to have open discussions about financial stress or loneliness in front of your child. They’re probably already going to be fearful about their own future, so it’s important not to add to that stress.
- Don’t be dismissive when your child shares their feelings. Even if you can’t relate, or if you feel that their emotions aren’t warranted, try to remember that every feeling is valid. It’s important to remain non-judgemental when children open up about divorce.
“When helping your child cope with divorce, it is important to keep the focus on them. This is not the time to divulge your feelings or look for them to comfort you. This is also not the time to discuss their other parent’s failings. Be honest and clear about what will happen going forward. Let them know what will change and what will stay the same. Lastly, give them permission to grieve these changes. It is an upsetting situation, and they need to know you are a safe place to voice those emotions.”
Dealing With Issues at Home and School
Your child’s school should be aware of your home situation. This way, if issues come up, or if your child acts out, the school has a better understanding of the root of the issue. If your child does begin to have behavioral issues out at school, open conversations between the school, counselors, and others can ensure that everyone is on the same page and has the child’s best interest at heart.
School counselors can be a huge asset for you. They’re trained to handle children’s emotions and can help them figure out how to be successful in school even though they may be dealing with a lot at home. Sometimes your child may need an impartial person to open up to. A school counselor knows exactly how to help a child deal with a divorce.
Counselors can also communicate with teachers and administration, so everyone understands if there are discipline, behavioral, or work-related issues stemming from the trauma they’re dealing with at home.
“As a parent, it is important to notify the adults in your child’s life of what is going on. Depending on their age, you can ask your child what they are okay with you sharing about the situation and what they are not. That way, they don’t feel as if their story is being shared without their consent. The school counselor can be a touchpoint for them at school as activating events occur that stir up feelings of sadness, anxiety, or anger.”
Online Counseling for Divorce
We often think about divorce counseling for ourselves when we go through the divorce process, but remember that therapy is also an option for your child. Online child divorce counseling can help tremendously. It’s a low-pressure, convenient, easy way for children to get the additional mental health support and guidance they need. It’s in a safe, familiar environment that can allow children to come to terms with the loss of the family relationship they once had, so they can begin to build their new life and new reality.
- “Children And Divorce”. Aacap.Org, 2017, https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-and-Divorce-001.aspx#:~:text=Vulnerability%20to%20both%20physical%20and,the%20resolution%20of%20parental%20conflict. Accessed 6 Sept 2021.
- Kemp, M.A., Gina et al. “Children And Divorce – Helpguide.Org”. Helpguide.Org, 2020, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/children-and-divorce.htm. Accessed 6 Sept 2021.