If you’re a parent who has decided to divorce, one of the first questions on your mind is surely how to help your child weather this major change. There’s no denying that divorce can be hard for children (and everyone). It may help you to know that for most children, the first two or three years after a divorce are the hardest. Things often improve after this adjustment period. And while some children from divorced homes do experience problems, like issues at home or behavioral and academic challenges, many do very well.
A lot can depend on how parents manage the transition to this new stage in the family’s life. This is where you come in. Here are some research-backed, expert tips that can help make divorce easier on your child.
After the initial decision to split:
- Both of you should tell your child together, if possible. Agree beforehand on what you will say. Remain calm and factual, and keep emotion and blame out of it. For instance, you could say, “Your father and I have tried hard, but we are not able to live together as a couple anymore. We are getting a divorce.”
- Let the child know that the divorce is not their fault, that nothing they did caused it, and that you will always love them, no matter what. Some children may need to hear this many times.
- Answer their questions (and there may be a lot) as thoroughly and honestly as you can.
- Let them talk about their feelings honestly and openly. Listen compassionately. If you feel you cannot handle the intensity of these emotions, find someone else your child can talk to, such as a grandparent or counselor.
- Let your child’s teacher, school counselor, and doctor know that the family is going through a divorce.
- Don’t let the child hear you fight, or involve them in any way in disputes.
- Never ask or expect a child to “take sides” in any way. This is deeply damaging.
As the separation and divorce proceed:
- Continue to keep conflict away from your child, especially legal conflict.
- Move forward with household change slowly, if possible. Try to give your child advance notice of transitions in living arrangements, schools, and the like, so that they have time to adjust.
- Don’t relax the rules. It may be tempting to slack off on bedtimes, screentime rules, junk food, and so on. But changes like this may actually make your child feel insecure and anxious.
- Don’t vent about or badmouth your spouse. It can be tempting to share your frustration with the nearest listener…which is probably your child. Don’t! He or she loves you both and will find this confusing and upsetting.
- Seek support for yourself. You need a listening ear. Whether that’s a sympathetic friend, a family member, or a support group, be sure to find it.
- Communicate regularly and neutrally with your ex. This may be very difficult, but your child needs you to do it. Try treating the ex like a distant work colleague: all business and no emotion.
- Exercise and eat well—both you and your child. You’ll feel better and experience less stress if you eat healthy food and get in some exercise.
After the divorce is finalized:
- Talk about new relationships. If one or both parents are starting to date, talk about ground rules with your ex. Expect an additional period of readjustment.
- Maintain consistent contact with both parents. Except in cases of abuse, children need both parents in their lives. Even if you think poorly of the other parent, he or she is vitally important to your child.
- Standardize rules. While minor inconsistencies are no big deal, generally similar rules between households (regarding homework, screentime, chores, and so on) will make life easier for everyone and help your child feel more secure.
- Maintain nonparent relationships. Children in divorced families benefit from support from extended family, friends, religious leaders, and others. They may need to vent to someone who isn’t their parent.
- Work on transitions. Going from home to home can be difficult for children. Pay attention and see what you can do to make this moment easier. It can help to have a ritual, a comfort object, or to keep things quiet and low-key after he or she arrives. Ask your child what will help.
- Never expect your child to play “spy” or “messenger.” Don’t ask your child to report back to you on what the other parent is doing or what is going on in his or her life. If you have questions about these issues, take them to your ex. Similarly, don’t ask your child to carry messages back and forth (“Well, you can tell your mother that…”). This puts them in an uncomfortable position.
- Allow your child to be a child. Sometimes, single parents lean on a child for emotional support, or make him or her into a best friend. This confuses boundaries.
Remember, it’s normal for your child to experience and voice grief, anger, anxiety, and frustration after a divorce. (It can also be normal for a child to feel somewhat relieved if the marriage was high-conflict.) At times, some children may need help processing their feelings about the divorce with a therapist or counselor. This is not a reflection on your parenting skills.
It can seem like a lot of work to go through a divorce while shielding your child from negativity and maintaining a civil relationship with your ex-spouse. However, the payoff will be great. Your child will feel more secure during this challenging time. He or she will learn about problem-solving and love from watching adults come through a difficult period with grace and maturity. And most of all, he or she will continue to have two loving, present parents working together in his or her best interest—an advantage that will last a lifetime.
By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Adjusting to divorce. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/types-of-families/Pages/Adjusting-to-Divorce.aspx
American Psychological Association. (2016). Healthy divorce: How to make your split as smooth as possible. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/healthy-divorce.aspx
Helpguide.org. (2016). Coparenting tips for divorced parents. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/co-parenting-tips-for-divorced-parents.htm
Helpguide.org. (2016). Children and divorce: Helping kids cope with separation and divorce. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/children-and-divorce.htm
Kidshealth. (2016). Tips for divorcing parents. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/divorce.html
Mayo Clinic. Children and divorce: Heling kids after a breakup. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/divorce/art-20047788
National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. (2016). Coparenting after divorce. Retrieved from https://www.family-institute.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/csi_buckley_co-parenting_after_divorce.pdf
National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. (2016). Minimizing the impact of divorce on children. Retrieved from http://www.twoofus.org/educational-content/articles/minimizing-the-impact-of-divorce-on-children/