Christine Treski, Marriage and Family Therapist
The decision to divorce is never easy and when children are involved the situation is even more challenging to navigate. Most couples delay separation or “stick with it” longer than may be personally healthy for the sake of their children. Divorce is difficult for everyone, but with appropriate support and care, children can and will adjust with their parents.
Every child will deal with this change in unique ways: Some will weather the storm with little disruption and others will need extra care and attention to guide them through the transition. Stress from separation or divorce manifests in different ways for different ages. For example:
- Younger children may “regress” in behaviors and become clingier, have tantrums, wet the bed again, or experience disrupted sleep.
- School-aged children may have academic troubles, become more disruptive and irritable at school or home, and have short-term difficulty with peer relationships.
- Teens may become rebellious and engage in “negative” behaviors, decline in school performance and recreational activities, or suddenly become more independent and seek greater autonomy for themselves.
It is not unusual for a child of any age to assume they contributed to their parent’s decision to divorce. Assure your children that they are loved by both parents and reinforce they are not in any way responsible for the divorce. Everyone needs time to heal and adjust to changes.
Ways to Cope Better
Be honest and be clear. While children shouldn’t know all the sordid details of a divorce, they are likely to feel more secure if they are aware of changes that will affect them. Children will not always ask, so be sure to communicate facts such as where each parent will live, where the children will live, and when they will be spending time with each parent.
Ask questions and listen. Children may hesitate in discussing their concerns and feelings about divorce. As you are able, make uninterrupted time to check in with your children to ask how they are feeling and really hear them out. If you don’t feel able to provide this level of emotional support, ensure there is another adult available to your child, perhaps another close family member or a counselor.
Give the children some control. While respecting the terms of your divorce or separation, let children have choices where they can. What do they want to do when they spend time with you? How would they like to keep in contact with grandparents and other special family members? A child’s life might feel turned upside-down without them having a say, so encouraging them to exercise control, even in minor ways, can be helpful.
Be a good co-parent. Always remember that your former partner is still a parent to your children, and despite how you may feel, maintain respect for them when talking with your children. Criticism and contempt for your former partner put children in the middle and will make them feel confused, insecure, and often unhappy. Messages for your former partner should always come from you and not be sent through your children. Civilized and respectful behavior protects your children and models maturity.
Utilizing all of these strategies will help you guide your children through the difficult emotions they will experience with divorce. These are trying times for the entire family, so if coping seems too difficult, do not hesitate to seek professional support. As a parent, your emotional stability, consistency, and coping ability will be mirrored in your children, so take care of yourself. Individual therapy, couples counseling for co-parenting, and family counseling can all be helpful tools to lend extra support through your family’s transition.