Dr. Yvette Stupart is a clinical counselor and educator. She gives insights on how to experience emotional health and relational well-being.
How to Help Your Child Cope With Divorce
According to Family and Children Services, more than one million children are affected by divorce each year. When parents divorce, children have to make a number of adjustments and may experience various psychological effects including a sense of failure, loneliness, and sadness.
Divorce can be stressful for children, and this can affect them in negative ways. Parents need to take steps to safeguard their children's well-being and help them recover.
How Divorce Stress Affects Children
Many children experience the stress of divorce each year. Stress is the body's response to any demand upon it. Stressors are external events, such as the divorce of their parents that may affect the child's equilibrium. Such events can have a great impact on their health and well-being.
Divorce can create problems for children and is related to factors such as their age and personality. For example, some younger children may feel personally responsible for their parents' divorce. The stress can affect children in other areas of their lives, for example, their schoolwork and peer relationships.
Children may display different emotional reactions including anger, feelings of rejection, and sadness. They need to mourn the loss of their family, and as they struggle to make sense of their feelings, parents should ensure that they do not take out their own frustrations on them.
In the TEDx video below, researcher Dr Tamara Afifi explains that children of divorce suffer from issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression in the short term. But stressed that many times these short-term effects could linger into adulthood.
How to Help Kids to Cope With Divorce
Many parents find telling their children about their impending divorce difficult, and so they avoid or delay telling them. But be sure to talk with your children from the start of the process to reduce their misunderstanding and uncertainties. In spite of a divorce, the focus should always be to continue to create a sense of belonging and acceptance in your child.
Children need love and understanding of their concerns, to help them deal with divorce. As you share what is happening with your children, it helps to prepare them for the changes that will occur in their lives. The information could increase their understanding and help to move from denying of the situation.
Steps to Helping Kids Cope With Divorce
|Specific Steps||Children's Difficulties||How it helps|
1. Tell your children about the divorce and explain what's happening.
Uncertainty about what is happening could result in children's insecurity.
Improved communication results in better understanding.
2. Encourage your children to talk about their feelings and ask questions.
This helps them to share their feelings and not to cover them up.
This enhances the adjustment process.
3. Explain that they are not the cause of the break up.
Children sometimes blame themselves for their parents' problems.
Parental reassurance will allay their fears.
4. Demonstrate your continued love and commitment to your kids.
Children might think their parents don't love them, since they are getting a divorce.
Promotes sense of security in children.
5. Resist casting blame and criticizing your spouse or ex in front of the children.
This puts the children in the middle of the conflict and forces them to take sides.
Models kindness, even-headedness, and correct behavior for children.
6. Explain likely changes to children.
Many things are changing and could result in uncertainty for the future.
This helps to maintain consistency in children's lives and facilitates long-term adjustments.
1. Explain Clearly What Divorce Is
As parents, you need to explain divorce and what is happening, to your children in an age-appropriate way. The discussion should take into consideration the children's age, maturity, and temperament. This could include some of the problems that lead to the decision, but generally, children don't need to know all the reasons.
You might have to explain several times for younger children, as they might not be able to understand or willing to accept it that their parents will not be living together. In your discussions with your children, try not to cast blame or say negative things about each other.
2. Encourage Your Child to Talk
It is important that you encourage your children to talk and ask questions about the divorce. Then take the time to listen to them as they express their concerns. Be attentive to what they are saying, and make sure that your verbal communication reflects your body language. You children want to know that you really want to understand their feelings and perspectives.
Don’t allow them to bury their feelings about the divorce because they are fearful of your reactions to their concerns. Instead, invite your children to share the things that they are most anxious or worried about, then try to reassure them. For example, some children might feel that are to be blamed for the problems that led to the divorce. They need your reassurance that this is not so, but it was a decision their parents made.
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3. Explain That They Are Not the Cause of the Breakup
Children sometimes blame themselves for their parents' problems. Their parents' reassurance will help allay their fears.
4. Demonstrate Parental Love and Care
As you help your children to understand that they were not the cause of the divorce or the problems you face as a couple, they also need to know that both of the parents still love them. Use the opportunity to explain that while mom and dad are divorcing, they are still special and dearly loved by their parents. Help your children to understand that even when the marriage ends, they will still have you.
Sometimes to please their parents, children are inclined to take sides. Let them know you want them to have good relationships with both parents, and that's fine. Even more, don’t fight before children, but try to model the same kind of behavior you want them to show when they are in conflict with others.
Jean McBride, in her book, Talking to Children About Divorce, gives practical steps that could help you take concrete actions in a variety of situations. These steps could improve communication patterns between you and your children and with your former spouse and this could ease your children's stress and help them feel more secure.
4. Recognize the Signs of Deepening Stress and Emotional Distress
Children react to the news of their parents' divorce with varying emotions including intense sadness. In fact, they might need some time to grieve the loss of their family as they knew it. Try to help your children to open up and talk about their feelings and concerns, or get the help some other family member who they trust. This could help them to ease the pent-up emotions in a healthy way.
You will need, however, to recognize signs of deepening stress resulting from the divorce that could result in depression. Depression in school children does not present in the same way as older children and adults. So they might become more physically active as opposed to being low in energy. You will need to get professional help for your child if the depression persists.
5. Resist blaming or criticizing your spouse or ex.
This puts the children in the middle of the conflict and forces them to take sides.
6. Explain the Likely Changes in Their Lives
Try to discuss changes that are directly related to your children ahead of time. For example, a much you possibly can, discuss with children the living and school arrangements. Be as specific about your plans and continue to reassure them to ease the sense of uncertainty that they might be experiencing.
Try to handle changes in living arrangements with the sensitivity it requires. What is important, is that you place the children’s interest as the priority, and try to cut down on some of the anxiety they might experience. Also, as much as possible, try to maintain some level of consistency in your children's life.
Your Children Can Adjust and Thrive After the Divorce
With your support, you can help your children adjust to divorce. This gives them the reassurance they need to bounce back and thrive. However, this takes effort on your part as parents, and it means responding to your children's concerns and needs. When tension is managed, and a nurturing atmosphere prevails, this facilitates your children's optimal development in the face of the changes.
References and Further Reading
HelpGuide (2012). Children and Divorce. Retrieved from www.helpguide.org. Accessed April 2013.
Kids Health (2013). Helping Your Child Through a Divorce. Retrieved from KidsHealth.org. Accessed April 2013.
Turner, J. F. & Helms, D. B. (1995). Lifespan Psychology (5th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Publishers.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD
Share in the conversation ...
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on June 02, 2015:
Thanks for your comments Rahmat.
Rahmat on February 20, 2015:
I want to commend you on your great rcuosree for parents and kids going through divorce. Divorce is a very difficult process to go through for everyone involved. As your website points out, helping children through a divorce is the most important aspect. Your kids will need help to get through this stage and onto the rest of their lives. Thanks for your great rcuosree.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on May 03, 2013:
Thanks MsDora. We sometimes don't realize the far-reaching effect that divorce can have on children, even adult children. Parents need to put strategies in place to safeguard the emotional well-being of their children, even in the face of their own conflict and challenges.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 02, 2013:
Purpose, thanks for your counsel on this very important topic. Even adult children of divorce need special expressions of love and understanding. Voted Up!
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on April 19, 2013:
Thanks Rfordin, I am happy you found the hub helpful, and that your children are adjusting to the divorce. Continue to build nurturing relationships with them, and be sure to pay attention to your own self-care.
Rfordin from Florida on April 19, 2013:
Hi Purpose Embraced,
Good article you have here on helping kids deal with divorce. My children are "children of divorce" and I have witnessed first hand the stress they went through as the divorce was taking place. As their mother and primary caregiver it was hard on me as well.
It's been 2 years now and they seem to be adjusting well, however I still harbor some guilt from putting my innocent children through that.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge on this topic.