Supporting Kids During a Divorce
From how to listen to their feelings to how to respond to anxiety, disruptive behavior and more
Clinical Experts: Stephanie Samar, PsyD , Jamie Howard, PhD
What You'll Learn
- What are normal reactions for kids to have to divorce?
- What can parents do to ease the transition?
- How can divorcing parents work together to help their kids?
When parents get divorced, one of their biggest jobs is to make sure the kids are okay. Kids react to divorce in different ways. They might feel like they’ve done something to cause the divorce. They might feel anxious. They might withdraw or act out. These are all totally normal reactions.
The best thing parents can do is let their kids know that any emotions they have are okay. Trying to cheer them up just puts pressure on them to feel a way they don’t. Instead, try to listen to how they’re feeling, even if it’s upsetting to you. Then instead of trying to “fix” their problem, you might say something like, “I understand why you feel that way. Can you tell me more?” This makes a child feel like they can talk to you without worrying about making you feel bad.
A structured routine helps kids with anxiety. It also helps prevent behavioral problems and helps kids stay focused at school. Letting teachers know what’s going on is a good idea. Some kids may need extra attention from you. If a kid seems to be avoiding friends or school, try to spend extra time with them. If this doesn’t help, it’s a sign your child might be depressed. They might need professional help.
There are some general rules of thumb for parents to follow that will help kids through divorce: Try to be as calm as possible. This will make kids feel secure. Let kids know the divorce is not their fault. Do the best you can not to say anything bad about your spouse in front of the kids. It’s important for kids to know that you and your spouse are on the same page about parenting. And of course, you can’t be your best for your kids unless you’re also taking care of yourself.
One of the biggest priorities during a divorce is ensuring that children continue to thrive. While it is undeniable that divorces are challenging for kids of all ages to handle, the good news is that there is a lot that parents can do to make sure their children feel supported during the process.
Once you’ve told your kids that you’re getting a divorce, it’s common for them to go through an adjustment period. You, too, will likely be going through a period of adjustment as family bonds are being reconfigured and a new “normal” is established.
Stephanie Samar, PsyD, a child psychologist, recommends not being too alarmed by some of the reactions you may be seeing early in the transition. “Think about how chaotic it feels for the adults in the situation, who have at least some control,” she notes. “That adjustment period has to happen, so honor it and don’t start to send the message ‘I just want you to be happy.’” You don’t want to inadvertently pressure kids to feel like they need to be on board and happy about a divorce. While it may be true, of course, that you just want your kids to be happy as soon as possible, giving them the room to process their own feelings is an important part of adjusting.
Respect their emotions
One way to let kids know that it’s okay to feel upset or angry is to encourage them to share how they’re feeling. Dr. Samar recommends saying, “We want to know how you’re feeling about this, and you’re not going to hurt our feelings if you tell us how you feel.”
This may be easier said than done, since what your child has to say might be difficult to hear, but it’s important to give her the chance to be honest. Kids sometimes try to protect their parents from the truth about how they’re feeling because they don’t want to make their parents feel upset — or more upset, if kids are already worried about a parent who’s unhappy about the break-up. But it isn’t a child’s job to make a parent feel better, and you don’t want to inadvertently send the message that you will be sad if your child is sad. Make it clear that you are interested in what your child has to say and, as Dr. Samar says, “then be careful not to let it hurt your feelings. Get whatever support you need to deal with how you feel and how your child feels and how that impacts you.”
As part of respecting your child’s emotions, do your best to just listen and not intervene. It’s every parent’s instinct to jump in and protect their child from things that are painful, but divorce is inevitably painful. Taking a step back and just listening allows your child to feel heard and feel that her opinion matters. It also lets her know that her emotions aren’t a problem to be solved or “gotten over.” This requires careful listening and empathizing, which psychologists call “validation.” For example, if your daughter says she is angry, instead of immediately looking for a way to cheer her up, you could validate that emotion by saying that you understand why she might feel that way and invite her to tell you more.
What to expect, and how to respond
While it is normal for kids to have an adjustment period in which they might be struggling, there are things you can do to help your kids cope in the healthiest way possible. Here are some common worries or behaviors parents might see, and how to help.
It is common for kids to worry that they did something to cause their parents to get divorced, especially younger kids, notes Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “Kids are more prone to blaming themselves when they’re younger because they’re so egocentric,” says Dr. Howard. “Even if you think they understand it, that’s something you want to make sure that you tell them explicitly: It’s not their fault.”
Divorce means some fundamental changes in routines, which can make many kids anxious. If you notice signs of anxiety in your children, one way to help is to make it very clear to children what they can expect. For example, what will their new living arrangements look like? For younger kids, it might help to post a calendar on the wall to show them where they will be each day.
Children will be reassured if you are able to establish a consistent routine, and as a parent you should make that a priority. “We see kids struggle more if their parents are struggling to figure out how to co-parent and what that’s going to look like,” says Dr. Samar. “So the earlier that you can establish ‘You’ll be here for these days and here for these days’ and have that be consistent and predictable, you’ll see kids settling in quicker and having less struggle.”
Children may start acting out more, too. This may be another sign of anxiety or it may be out of a desire to figure out what the new boundaries are. Either way, creating a structured environment with clear expectations of behavior should help.
“Kids might see this as an opportunity to test new boundaries, and without as much of a structured environment, their behavior might get worse. As much as possible keep things structured in the same way in both households,” Dr. Howard advises.
It is also common for kids to respond to a big transition in their lives by needing more parental attention. “Some kids will be needing more parental and adult support with things they used to be able to do independently,” says Dr. Samar. “You might see their sleep routine is disrupted or they’ll need you to do some self-care things for them a bit more than they used to.”
Parents might also see the opposite — kids becoming more withdrawn or aloof. While giving children their space is important, you still want to create opportunities to spend time with them, so consider suggesting a special outing that may be particularly appealing or other ways to bond. Make sure, too, to do your best to be available to talk if your child wants to, and do a good job listening to what he has to say when he does.
If you notice that your child is losing interest in activities that he used to enjoy, or not wanting to spend time with friends, try to get him back on track. You want to help maintain a sense of normalcy, and these outlets are important. Wanting to withdraw may also be a sign of depression, adjustment disorder or school refusal, which are all linked to divorce, so you will want to keep an eye out if your child continues to avoid things.
Some kids may also start experiencing difficulty concentrating on school work. Life might be feeling very chaotic, so do your best to create predictable, reassuring routines at home, including a regular homework routine. It’s also a good idea to alert teachers to the fact that your family is going through a divorce, so that your child can get extra support at school if she needs it.
Good parenting tips during a divorce
Model calm: As much as possible, you want to model “we’ve got this,” says Dr. Howard. “Even if it’s not true, even if only one parent has got this. Particularly if you have young children, then you get it to work.” Modeling calm and insulating children from conflict are important during this time. Likewise, try to maintain as much normalcy as possible with home life and extracurricular activities. When changes do need to be made, create new routines and try to stick to them.
Be civil about your ex: It’s not healthy for children to have unnecessary conflict in their relationships with their parents, so do your best not to speak negatively about your spouse around your child. “Someone could be a lousy spouse and a good parent,” notes Dr. Howard, “and you really don’t want to deprive your child of a good parent. Kids do better with two loving parents, divorced or married.”
Sometimes conflict can arise once you begin working out how to co-parent. You may need to make compromises or take turns making decisions. Whatever you do, try to present a united front to your child as much as possible. If your spouse really isn’t willing to be cooperative, do your best to set routines and expectations for your home, since you do have control over that.
Get support: Talk to your child’s school counselor or teacher to find out if there are any services available through the school. Many schools have programs for children who are going through a divorce, such as Banana Splits, which is a divorce support group for kids.
Also, if you are struggling, make sure you are getting support for yourself. Talk to your friends and family if you are feeling overwhelmed and ask for favors if you need them. People often want to help out, but they don’t know what to do, so let them know if you need a hand with the groceries or just want to let off some steam. If you think you might benefit from talking with a therapist, don’t hesitate to make an appointment. Remember, you can best support your child if you are feeling supported, too.