Helping a Child Cope With Divorce and Separation

By: Katie Flowers Samler

Divorce isn’t easy, although it can be the right decision for a couple and even for a family. Parents going through a divorce typically worry about the impact it will have on their children. It’s normal for children to experience and express many emotions when their parents’ divorce. Anger, sadness, confusion, and guilt are all normal reactions. Children also worry about their parents and what will happen to them. Parents can mitigate the impact divorce has on their children’s well-being by being prepared.

What Should We Tell Our Children About Our Separation/Divorce?

Every child and situation is unique and it is important to have a plan when telling children about their parents’ divorce/separation. In many circumstances, it is beneficial for parents to tell children together about their divorce or separation and to appear as a unified front that the parents both very much love their children and are making the choice together to divorce/separate. If the child sees a therapist, it is wise for parents to consult with the child’s therapist before telling their child about the divorce/separation and obtain tips from the therapist for how to best approach the situation with their child. Even if the child does not see a therapist, many parents find it helpful to consult with a mental health professional for tips in telling their children about a divorce/separation.   

Generally, younger children do not need as much information as older children. Children of all ages will have questions, and all kids need reassurance that they are not the cause of the family breakdown and that both parents love them very much. If a plan for the children’s schedule has been agreed to and/or court-ordered, creating a calendar with the children’s schedule of days they will be at each parent’s home may be helpful to provide the children some clarity on their new normal. Children should also be reassured that it is safe for them to share their feelings. It is wise to let children know that there are other trusted adults they can talk with, like their parents, another family member, a therapist, or a school counselor. Make sure everything the children are told is age-appropriate and maintains good boundaries. No child needs to hear the details behind the deterioration of their parents’ relationship.  From a legal perspective, it is also important to understand any limitations you may have in communicating about the divorce/separation with the child (i.e. are there Standing Orders or other orders in place that restrict what they can and cannot discuss with their children).

What Can We Do to Make the Transition Easier?

Ideally, custody arrangements, at least temporary ones, should be hammered out between parents before they talk with their children. Generally, kids cope best if they trust that their parents have a good plan and know what they are doing. In many circumstances, it may not be possible to work out a temporary schedule for the children before the parents separate.  However, in all circumstances, it is important to try to keep the children’s routines as normal as possible and to provide reassurances to the children that, if a plan has not been agreed to or ordered, the parents are working on one. Routine is critical for us all, particularly children. Other ways parents can help ease the transition are to: 1) Always be polite with the child’s other parent in front of them. 2) Do not undermine the other parent’s authority. 3) Make sure that kids have safe spaces and what they need at both homes and keep lines of communication open with children about how they feel during this time.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Divorce is a stressful change, and most children will display some symptoms of the stress and emotional upheaval they are experiencing. Younger children might revert to behavior they had previously stopped, like sucking their thumb. Older children might express anger. Warning signs to look for include:

  • Issues at school
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Angry outbursts
  • Anxiety

Parents should tap into the support network surrounding their children when they are struggling and consider involving a child or adolescent therapist. Many parents seek guidance and referrals from the child’s pediatrician who can be a helpful resource for the family. 

Activities for Helping Children Deal With Divorce

One way of supporting children through a divorce is by the parents participating in activities with their children that help them safely process their emotions. These activities also help parents spend time with their children and strengthen the bond between parent and child.

Drawing Pictures

Art therapy of any kind can be beneficial for children. Kids often struggle to put their feelings into words. Drawing lets them express those feelings in an age-appropriate way and lets parents into their child’s emotional world. After the drawing session, parents should ask the kids to explain the picture to them.

Talking it Out

Parents should remain in developmentally appropriate, communication with their children during and after a divorce. Divorce is stressful for adults, but it is also stressful for children. Kids have worries, questions, and fears that they might not be comfortable expressing or even know how to put into words. Asking a child how they are feeling, taking time to listen to them, and responding in a developmentally appropriate and empathetic way, helps to support the child through this phase.

Communicating From a Distance

Divorce means parents and children will spend time apart from each other. After some divorces, one parent moves far away. It can be beneficial to children to maintain communication with kids even when they are not in the same house as their parents. Email, consistent phone dates, a shared online journal, a family website, and video chats are all ways to maintain contact when away from each other.

Exercising

Spending time together engaged in movement and physical play is great for parents and kids. There are health and stress relief benefits for kids and adults.

Playing Together

Play is a great way for parents and children to bond. During play, children often express feelings they don’t know how to talk about. Some play ideas include a DIY puppet theater, playing card or board games, or imaginative role-playing.

Creating Two Comfortable Homes

It’s vital that children feel at home and comfortable in both of their parent’s homes. Each home should have familiar items to help ensure a child’s comfort in each place.  Some things may travel with the child, but basic supplies and comfort items should be at both places so a child feels they have two comfortable homes rather than a place they just visit. These include clothing, toiletries (i.e. toothbrush), toys, games, school and art supplies, and favorite snacks and foods.

Additional Reading on Divorce

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