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Helping kids cope with divorce

Divorce is emotional, complex, and hard enough for the couple that is splitting up. At least it makes sense to the adults in the room. Often, children are confused and mistaken about what a divorce is and why it's happening--seemingly to them alone. Reactions depend on the child and the age, but there are universal actions that make a difference in helping them get through the tough transition without any scars.

How to talk to the children

Most children seek stability, viewing the world in a self-centered and dependent sense. Divorce is a frightening change, one that affects their core insecurities. The first conversation is the hardest, but keep in mind that it's the first of many.

  • Keep the message simple. It's heartbreaking news, even if older children see it coming. The first discussion should be together as a family, putting any parental arguments aside and focusing on the child's needs.
  • Let your child know what will remain the same: your love, your living arrangement, his/her school, and even daily routines like the school bus. While there will be changes, reinforce your child's security and environmental concerns. Avoid anything that suggests a breakup of the family, such as that a parent is "leaving," emphasizing instead that it will be different.
  • Make clear that it's not your child's fault. It is an adult decision and it is final. Responses vary by age, but children view the world through a personal lens and will often try to solve the problem for you, behaving differently and thinking they can change the outcome.

Reactions

All personalities will respond differently: some in silence, some asking questions, some in anger and others will try to block the issue out completely. Many children will respond with seemingly small concerns about their own life, such as where the pets will live or how it affects soccer practice. This is a normal response.

Divorce is a complex issue but there are common approaches regardless of the reaction.

  • Maintain open and frequent communication about how your child is feeling and responding to the change.
  • Alleviate fears while acknowledging change.
  • Monitor your child's behavior for signs of stress, such as irregular sleeping patterns or acting out at school.

Tips for successful adjustment

Telling your child is difficult, but getting through the divorce in a civil and accepting manner strengthens the parent-child relationship. Avoiding conflict between the parents emphasizes the family bond even as the family is being restructured. By keeping the household tension-free, it nurtures the family concept even amid significant change.

Divorce may be the symbol of a divided household, but it's actually a resolution of an ongoing problem. By working together through the turmoil, it reinforces that whatever a parent's marital status, you'll remain a mother or father through anything.

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