How To Help a Child Deal With Divorce

Divorce can take an emotional and even physical toll on a child. The effects of divorce on children depend on many factors, but few are more important than how well their parents help them cope with the divorce.

Your ability to listen, tell the truth and show that you understand why your child feels the way they do can lessen the negative impacts of divorce. It's also pivotal that you take care of yourself so you can support your child.

As you help your child through a divorce, know that the journey could have many bumps along the way. From how you tell your child about the divorce to how well you prepare them for life afterward, every choice you make plays a part in smoothing out the road.

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How to talk to kids about divorce

Telling your kids that you're separating is one of the hardest parts of divorcing. How you deliver the news can have a big impact on your child's ability to cope with the divorce.

Plan what you're going to say ahead of time. You don't have to write a script. Just jot down the main points you need to make. What you say should be appropriate for your child's age. You'll want to use terms that they can understand while sparing them the intimate details.

Plan to present the divorce as a mutual decision even if one parent is more at fault. Some useful phrases:

  • "We've grown apart."
  • "Mommy and Daddy argue a lot, and we don't want to do that anymore."
  • "We don't feel as close as we used to."

Be up-front about any changes that are to come so the children aren't blindsided. Surprises will only make it harder for a child to deal with the divorce.

Aim to address these questions before the children have to ask:

  • Who's leaving home?
  • Will the children be able to visit?
  • Will the children have to move?
  • How will their routines change?

Children may blame themselves for the divorce, so make it clear divorce is a decision by grown-ups. Also, they may worry that divorce will change the way you feel about them. Drive home the fact that you still love them and will continue to work together as parents.

When it comes time to actually talk to your kids about the divorce, stay calm. Try not to get overly emotional as your children will likely reflect your feelings.

Have both parents participate in the conversation. If one is absent, your children may assume that parent did something wrong.

Make sure all of your kids are there too; it's better they hear the news from you than from their siblings.

Once you've finished, give your children the floor. Answer their questions without getting into details that don't affect them. Reassure them that your feelings won't be hurt by what they have to say.

If they express anger or sadness, normalize their feelings rather than rushing to cheer them up. They'll need your understanding to move on. Invite them to tell you more so they feel comfortable expressing their true emotions. This is an integral part of their ability to cope with the divorce.

The conversation won't end here. Your kids will probably have more to say later. Even if they don't, check in regularly with them. Let them know you're there to lend an ear when they're ready to talk about the divorce.

Helping children cope with divorce

Experts say the following tips can help a child deal with divorce.

Keep case details away from the children

Many documents come along with a divorce. It's all tempting for a curious kid to take a peek. Don't leave information about the divorce where the child can access it, and don't expose them to more information than necessary. Keep them an arm's length away from the details that don't directly impact them.

Tell the truth

Protecting your children from the details of your divorce doesn't mean lying or keeping secrets about how things will change. It won't be easy for your child to hear that they'll have to move or won't see one parent as often, but not telling them will only lead to more hurt feelings.

Ease them into their new lives

There's plenty you can do to help soften the blow of divorce.

If you're moving, take a trip to your new town so the children can see where they'll be living. Ask if your children can take a tour of their new school so it seems more familiar when they start classes

Put up a visual parenting calendar to reassure your children that they will see the other parent soon.

Early on, let the kids personalize their spaces in each parent's home so they feel comfortable.

Be proactive

Deciding to end your marriage comes with a lot of uncertainty. The best way to help children cope with divorce is to try to get ahead of things before they become overwhelming.

A divorce case can take over a year. Getting temporary orders will make it easier to transition into parenting after divorce and get children used to following a visitation schedule.

Kids may become aloof after learning about their parent's separation. They may no longer enjoy activities they used to or may become distant from their friends. If you observe this, try to get them back to their old selves before they turn completely inward. Suggest going out to do something they enjoy or just sitting down to have a talk.

Some age groups take divorce harder than others. Read books, articles and other materials about children and divorce. These resources can help you anticipate your child's reactions and address their needs accordingly.

Encourage your children to be open with you

Some children don't express their emotions because they're afraid to upset their parents. Yet not confronting feelings does more harm than good in the long run.

The best way for a child to deal with their emotions is to let their parents know what they want to talk about. If they aren't at the point of doing that, it's up to you to start the conversation. It's often easier to have these discussions while you're doing another activity. Talk while making dinner together, playing with toys, taking a walk, etc.

Be supportive

The surest way to help your child through a divorce is to be there for them. Studies have shown that children with supportive parents are less stressed about the divorce. Ask them what they need from you or the other parent. Suggest speaking with a professional if they're struggling to talk to you.

Consider what your children want

While parents should ultimately have the last word, consider what your child wants. Some children have thoughts on what the visitation arrangement should be. If they say they want to spend more time with the other parent, don't take offense. Maybe they need more time to bond with that parent.

Have patience

Your child's feelings may change throughout the process. A child coping with divorce may seem unaffected at one moment, then down the next. Be patient with their changing emotions. If you yell at them or force them to talk, they'll feel uncomfortable and likely close themselves off.

Monitor your children's behavior

Children of divorce are at a higher risk of engaging in risky behavior like fighting and substance use. If this happens in your family, it could be a cry for attention. Have a conversation about why they're acting out, and ask what you can do to help. You might have to seek professional help before their behavior spirals out of control.

Show affection

Your child may feel like they were abandoned or their feelings were not considered when you decided to divorce. Affection can go a long way to soothe them.

This doesn't mean spoiling them with gifts and trips, though those things are good in moderation. The most effective types of affection are free. Hugs, kisses and taking the time to listen can all go a long way.

Stay strong

It's pivotal that a child coping with divorce knows their parents have things under control. Carry on with things as usual when possible. If your child sees you put on a brave face, they are more likely to do the same.

This doesn't mean pretending everything is okay. Reassure your children that it's normal to feel upset about what's happening while you set an example that divorce isn't the end of the world.

Try to have an amicable relationship with your ex

There are many things to consider when divorcing with children. Among them is how you'll handle parenting after divorce. If it's safe for the child to be around the other parent, that parent should remain part of the child's life. This maintains normalcy so that the transition to a two-parent household is easier.

Consider handling your case through an alternative dispute resolution method rather than going to court. Having an amicable divorce could teach you valuable skills about compromising rather than competing.

If you're going to have a successful co-parenting relationship, you'll need to communicate civilly. Avoid antagonizing the other parent or blaming them for the divorce in front of your child. It could taint the child's relationship with their other parent or with you.

Instead, find time for you all to be in one place at the same time. It can be comforting for your children to see that you're still committed to parenting together.

Get outside help

It's normal for recently-divorced parents to feel alone and in need of support. However, you shouldn't rely on your children to provide this for you. Doing so could leave them feeling like they don't have anyone to lean on as it'll seem like you aren't capable.

Vent to your family and friends, or consider talking to a therapist. Getting your feelings out could lift a weight off your shoulders and stop you from taking out your harsh emotions on your kids.

Consider telling your children's teachers and coaches about the divorce so that they know the child may not be their usual self. These adults might be understanding of the situation and give your child a bit more leeway when it comes to academic or athletic performance. They may also be able to help the child deal with the divorce.

Look for support groups for divorced parents or their kids. If need be, work with a family therapist or parenting expert for guidance on how to get through rough patches.

Be consistent

It's good for your children to learn to be flexible, but too much change can be overwhelming. A routine could help your child feel safe and secure because they know what is going to happen. You don't have to stick to a strict schedule. Simply set out times for schoolwork, dinner, bedtime, etc.

You should also have clear rules and discipline. What happens if your child purposefully skips a school assignment or misses their curfew? Even if the other parent doesn't enforce the rules, don't get lax in your parenting. Doing so could make the child think less of you as an authority figure.

Taking care of yourself so you can be there for your child

It's perfectly fine to feel uncertainty, sadness, guilt and a host of other emotions after the dissolution of your marriage. Your children are likely going through similar struggles as they expect dramatic changes to their life. The more "normal" you act, the better they'll adjust.

Manage your own stress and stay healthy so you can be in the best shape to care for your children. Exercise, spend time with friends and family, keep a journal to express your emotions, see a therapist — anything that can ease your mind and body.

Don't be too hard on yourself about the decision to split. Sometimes it's best for you and your children, especially if disagreements with your ex frequently affected the kids.

As you help your children through the divorce, it's most important for them to know that you still love them unconditionally. When they feel loved and supported, they can focus on other aspects of their life more than the divorce.

Using technology to encourage co-parenting

Divorced parents should do everything they can to work together. Creating a parenting plan is a good first step.

The Custody X Change app walks you through each step of creating a plan. Parents can link accounts to share potential plans and schedules.

The result is an organized plan that meets the court's standards and simplifies parenting post divorce.

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