How Can You Help Kids Cope With Divorce?
Conventional wisdom taught us that parents trapped in unhappy marriages needed to stay together for the sake of the family or risk damaging their children for life. More recent research, however, paints a much brighter picture of divorce when parents put their own emotions aside and focus on what’s truly best for the kids. Many child psychologists now say that it isn’t the divorce that damages children; it’s how their parents handle that divorce that has the greatest impact.
A University of Virginia study in 2002 that followed 2,500 children of divorce over a 30-year period found that most had bounced back within two years and that 80 percent suffered little or no long-term effects from divorce.
“Now, there’s less stigma around divorce,” says Jennifer Coleman, a life transition coach with a local law firm. “People are seeing that it’s possible to ‘divorce well’ and try to make divorce a healing process, rather than a damaging process.”
Parents who are able to put aside their differences and focus on their children’s needs can raise children as happy and secure as those in intact marriages. However, parents who fight constantly, engage in long custody battles and put their children in the middle of a dissolving marriage can leave their children with a legacy of emotional wounds.
Of course, divorce under the best of circumstances is still a difficult time for children. They will feel sad, angry and confused when they’re told the news. But kids thrive in happy, stable homes — whether their parents are together or apart. Divorce may mean the end of a marriage, but it isn’t the end of a family.
Breaking The News
Telling the kids about a divorce is one of the most stressful things parents will ever have to do. Many just avoid the difficult discussion, while one parent simply packs his or her bags and leaves. This can be devastating and confusing for a child who goes to bed with two parents and wakes up to find that one is gone.
“I don’t remember them sitting us down and saying: ‘This is what’s happening.’ I just kind of remember one parent moving to the basement and not really getting it,” says Kati, now 19, whose parents divorced when she was about 11 years old. “It was pretty clear that they weren’t together anymore because I would start meeting my mom’s boyfriend, and then I met my dad’s girlfriend. It was really confusing. I just don’t remember them sitting me down and being straight up: ‘This is what’s going on.'”
Most experts say that parents should break the news as a united front. Children shouldn’t hear about divorce from just one parent or from anyone other than their parents. It’s also important for parents to discuss beforehand what they plan to tell the children. They should agree on what information they will and won’t share about the divorce. It helps if parents have made at least temporary arrangements for the children’s living situation and visitation before breaking the news to them.
The best time to tell children is when emotions are not running high. The start of the weekend is a good time for many school-aged children because it gives them a couple of days to take in the news before they have to go back to school.
Some experts suggest that parents tell children separately to give each child a chance to express his or her feelings. All experts agree that parents should tell their children as early as possible about the divorce — ideally while both parents are still living in the marital residence.
Parents should talk to their children in age-appropriate language. Older children may be able to handle more adult conversations, but even they shouldn’t be burdened with too many personal details about the divorce. With younger children, it may simply be enough to say: “Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other anymore, but we still love you.”
Children also need to be reassured that they aren’t to blame for the divorce. Many children feel that they bear some blame for divorce and that they can do something to “fix” it. Children don’t always realize how powerless they are, and taking some blame makes them feel that they have some control over the situation. It helps for parents to remind them often that the divorce is between two adults and was not caused in any way by the children. Parents should express their love for their children and make sure that the kids know that the parents loved each other at the beginning of the marriage. It’s important that children don’t believe they were conceived in anger.
Parents should also allow children to ask questions, even if there are no answers to some of the questions. Children naturally focus on what the divorce will mean for them. Where will they live? Where will they go to school? If one parent moves out, will they ever see that parent again? Will both parents eventually leave them?
Parents can also ask their children questions. For instance, asking children what the word “divorce” means may uncover some surprising misconceptions.
Experts suggest that parents be honest with the children about why they are getting a divorce, but the message needs to be simple. Kids don’t need to know all of the personal details about their parents’ relationship.
The most important message parents can send their kids is that they have two parents who will love and care for them and that the divorce is in no way their fault.
How Kids React
Children’s reactions to divorce can be as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Two siblings may have very different emotions in response to the news.
Overwhelmed by their own emotions, parents often don’t realize how deeply their children are hurting. Many times, parents mistake silence to mean that their kids aren’t very affected by the divorce. Meanwhile, children who find it difficult to communicate their emotions may end up masking their feelings in more destructive behavior.
“When I was going through my divorce, I didn’t know what my children were going through,” said Naomi Ford Bolt, a divorce church consultant with DivorceCare, a Bible-focused support group headquartered in Wake Forest, N.C. “I was so centered on myself. You’re in such pain that you don’t realize the children are going through the same emotions that you are, and they come out with scars that they never get rid of. My children are adults, and I can still see the scars they have from the divorce.”
Children’s reactions to divorce can range from the painfully obvious, such as a meltdown, to as subtle as a teenager spending more time in her room and less time with friends. Younger children may not react with words, but they might experience headaches or other physical signs.
To help children deal with their emotions, parents have to see divorce from a kid’s perspective. Here are some common reactions for children of different age groups:
Although they are too young to really grasp the concept of divorce, babies are very sensitive to their parents’ feelings and can react to the tension, stress and anger that surround the end of a marriage. They may become cranky and clingy as a result. They may complain of a sore tummy or a loss of appetite. Reassure babies with lots of hugs and cuddles and try to maintain a calm demeanor around them.
Toddlers And Young Children
Children of this age are old enough to experience shock, anger and confusion when they learn of their parents’ divorce. Their world revolves entirely around their family. They can understand the concept of separation, but are too young to grasp the complexities of why parents get a divorce. They may react by regressing: wetting the bed, speaking in baby talk or becoming somewhat aggressive and irritable.
They may think they are to blame for the divorce and may fear that both Mommy and Daddy will leave them someday. They need lots of reassurance that both parents still love them and that the divorce is not their fault. Try not to introduce too many changes with this age group during divorce. For instance, now might not be the best time to start toilet training.
Children in this age group are still very dependent on their parents, but are starting to socialize with friends and teachers. They can experience a whole range of emotions. Younger ones are more likely to rebound quickly and adapt to new family situations. Some experts believe that this is because they are old enough to understand that parents can be happier when they’re apart, but young enough to retreat into fantasy when faced with the more negative aspects of divorce.
Meanwhile, older children in this age group are some of the most vulnerable to the emotional turmoil of divorce. They can feel overwhelmed with grief and conflicted loyalties. They are old enough to understand some of the life-changing consequences of divorce, but still too young to truly analyze their feelings. They can feel abandoned by the parent who has left the marriage, but they are still too young to stand up to parents and express their anger directly.
Children of this age are old enough to understand most aspects of divorce and deeply feel the loss of the family as they have known it. They might also react by struggling at school or lashing out at their parents in anger. They may feel embarrassed about the divorce, but children in this age group are better at expressing their emotions and seeking support from friends and family.
Teens can be moody and insecure even on their good days. They are in the process of developing their individuality, cultivating a social life, and learning about love and relationships. Although they are less likely to blame themselves for their parents’ breakup, teens can still find divorce to be a very disruptive process. It forces them to take on adult issues before they’re ready. While they often struggle with complex emotions, teens may look at the situation in black-and-white terms, blaming or siding with one parent. Many look to their own burgeoning independence for comfort by distancing themselves even more from their parents.
Allowing children to communicate their thoughts and feelings about divorce is a major step toward helping them heal. But communication is easier said than done. It’s not easy to communicate with kids in the best of times. It can seem almost impossible when everyone in the family is going through emotional turmoil.
Ask a child of any age, “How are you feeling about the divorce?” They’ll probably answer, “Fine” or “I don’t know.”
The truth is that they probably don’t know. They are deeply conflicted and confused. They worry about disappointing or hurting their parents if they reveal their true feelings. They may be a jumble of emotions and not know where to begin to express them. Parents may want to communicate with their children, but not know what to say. It can be difficult to avoid putting down the other spouse, and it can be difficult to deal with the hurtful words that children may say.
A child who isn’t acting out may appear to be handling the divorce well. This same child, however, may be struggling with emotions, but feel too afraid of hurting the parents to communicate those feelings. Meanwhile, a child who throws temper tantrums or wets the bed may be crying out for a way to connect with his or her parents.
It’s important that parents give their children permission to feel sad and angry, even if that means they express that anger toward the parents. Instead of asking, “How are you doing?” or “You seem to be doing OK,” parents can say, “You seem sad.” Another statement that might help a child to open up is, “If I was in your place, I would feel pretty upset.”
Divorcing parents need to accept that children will have mood swings and emotional outbursts. They may say things in anger, threaten to go live with the other parent or cut parents off from their lives. It’s important not to take this personally. Children need to know that it’s OK to talk to either parent about their feelings, even if it means expressing anger toward their parents. Of course, then, it’s up to the parents to stick to their promise and not become angry at the children. That kind of trust between a parent and a child can go a long way toward helping children express their emotions freely.
“You just have to think on their level,” says Ford Bolt. “I know my daughter said, ‘I hate you. I’m going to go live with Dad.’ She just said what she was feeling at the moment internally. It really does hurt when you’re working so hard to try and be a good parent, and they come back and say things like that to you. You just have to realize where they’re coming from. Their emotions are so high at the time. Sometimes, it’s good to just let them go to the other parent and realize that it’s not any better there.”
Of course, not every conversation has to be about divorce. It’s important that parents spend a bit of time with each child separately, talking about his or her day, playing or going for a drive. That time together away from the specter of divorce will help open the door to better communication.
Older children may also benefit from talking to neutral adults. Parents can suggest that an older child also talk to a counselor, therapist, family friend or religious leader. Older children especially need a bit of space and privacy to blow off a bit of steam independent of their parents.
Young children often express themselves better through play than through conversation. Drawing a picture of a family or acting out scenes with dolls or puppets can be helpful, after which an adult can ask the child to explain what’s going on in the picture or scene. How is the mommy feeling? How does the daddy feel? What about the baby? Role-playing where the child is one of the parents and the parent plays the baby can be very revealing. Play doesn’t always have to be focused on a divorce theme, but it’s a great way to open up communication by prompting young children with questions. For example: “The puppy seems sad. Can you tell me about it?”
Younger children especially need reassurance that life is going to be OK and that the things they valued before divorce — their parents’ love, daily routine, school, friends, toys and pets — will still be there after the divorce.
Parents need to bear in mind that they may have to answer some questions more than once. Repetition helps to reinforce the message. Children may need to hear many times that they are not at fault for the divorce.
Children often imitate their parents’ behavior, so how parents cope with a divorce has an effect on how well the children handle it.
It can be difficult for children if a parent constantly bad-mouths his or her spouse or if the divorce takes up all of a parent’s time and energy. Parents need to continue to talk to their children about the school day and not dwell solely on the details of the divorce. If the divorce becomes all-consuming, adults should consider seeking outside help, whether from a counselor or a friend. The most important thing to remember is that the strongest emotions need to be discussed with an adult, not the children.
“If you wear your emotions on your sleeve, if you’re mad and angry and crying, your children are not going to get the sense of security and will feel very vulnerable, very protective of you,” says Deborah Moskovich, author of “The Smart Divorce” and a divorced mother of three. “They’re going to feel like they have to take care of you. You don’t want to send out the message that it’s the children’s job to take care of the parents.”
Children live very much in the present and have a hard time looking at their lives long term. When a parent works on developing a positive outlook for the future, it helps the children to see that they, too, can find happiness despite the divorce.
Parenting Through Divorce
To help kids cope with divorce, both parties must acknowledge that they are “co- parents.” While the marriage may be over, it’s important to remember that the child is still the product of two parents and needs the love and support of both.
There are always exceptions, such as situations where one parent entirely abandons the family or where violence, abuse or mental illness keeps a parent from remaining actively involved in the child’s life.
However, in her book “The Good Divorce,” therapist and researcher Constance Ahrons found that more than half of divorcing couples were able to maintain or develop a positive, co-operative parenting arrangement after divorce. Their kids thrived as a result.
This kind of low-conflict, respectful parenting can lay the foundation for a child’s continued healthy development after divorce.
Of course, co-parenting sounds like a great idea until there’s an argument about something, such as who will take the children for Christmas or who will attend a graduation. Parents need to acknowledge that in most cases, the other parent will be in the child’s life for many, many years to come. Sharing in the children’s lives is just a reality that must be faced, from their accomplishments and tragedies to holidays, weddings and grandchildren.
Some divorce experts suggest looking at post-divorce parenting as a business partnership. The former spouses become partners in the business of raising happy children. Business partners draw up a contract, agree to compromises and treat each other with respect during meetings.
This means that former spouses don’t have to be best friends. In fact, Ahrons found in her research that the most effective co-parents were not friends, but kept their discussions limited to issues about the children.
Successful parents, Ahrons writes, “separated out issues related to their marital relationship from those related to their parenting relationship. Their desire to provide the best situation for their children took precedence over their personal issues.”
Parents who are married usually have flexible parenting arrangements. They play off each other and set shared rules on the fly. But once a couple divorces, co-parenting becomes a more difficult exercise. Still, divorce is just the end of the marriage contract. After divorce, parents can sign a new parenting contract.
If the parents are on good terms, a verbal contract may be all that’s necessary to set forth a few general rules. When parents have difficulty getting along, however, it might help to create a detailed and specific written contract with the help of an outside party such as a counselor. This requires both parents to negotiate and compromise on everything from visitation to snacks to bedtimes. Parenting contracts can include the dates and times of visitation, length of phone calls between parents, and the topics that can be discussed between the parents and with the children, as well as subjects that are off limits.
Parents should agree on what will happen if someone’s schedule changes, if a parent moves away or if a child begins a new after-school activity. Once the agreement has been established, it shouldn’t be changed without the consent of both parents. The contract can be changed as the divorce is finalized, as the children age, or when a parent moves away or remarries.
It is best to work out a temporary parenting contract as soon as a couple separates, but bear in mind that a parenting contract isn’t the same thing as a custody agreement. A good parenting contract can form the basis for a divorce settlement and custody agreement down the road.
Shared parenting involves doing what is best for the children, but it isn’t necessarily equal parenting. Even intact families don’t usually split parenting duties evenly. Here are some general guidelines that should be incorporated into any parenting contract:
- The children come first. The parents’ issues with each other come second.
- Both parties are partners in parenting.
- Both parties must treat each other with respect.
- Children benefit when their parents’ relationship is supportive and cooperative, even after the divorce, so this should be stipulated in the contract.
- Children have the right to be loved by both parents and have regular contact with each parent and their extended families, such as grandparents and cousins.
- Disagreements about parenting should be kept between the adults.
- Both parties should agree to never threaten to withhold child support payments or cut off the child’s access to the other parent.
- Both parties should agree to never say negative things about the other parent in front of the children.
- When disagreements do come up, they need to be limited so that they don’t become full-out arguments. If parents agree to talk about contentious issues in a neutral setting, such as a counselor’s office, or agree to drop the topic altogether if it isn’t about the kids, problems are less likely to escalate.
- Parents must understand and agree that the children’s best interests are not the same as the parents’ best interests.
- Each spouse is entitled to privacy after the divorce.
A Special Note For Dads
For many men, their identities as fathers are inextricably linked with their involvement with their kids. Since most divorce agreements still give primary custody to mothers, this can strain a father’s relationship with his children.
Too many times, fathers feel their children begin to drift away after a separation or divorce. They pay child support, but seem to have little say in their children’s lives. They may start to withhold child support payments to punish their ex, only to find that their spouse cuts off access to the children. Frustrated, they withdraw even further from their kids.
But many fathers also report having better relationships with their children after divorce. This is usually because they must fight harder to get access to their children and make sure the time they spend with their kids is special.
A study by the National Institute for Mental Health found that fathers who were actively involved with their children had fewer premature and accidental deaths and fewer hospital admissions and were less likely to abuse substances.
In her research, Ahrons found that fathers’ relationships with their children are established in the first two years after the divorce and usually stay that way for some years after. So, fathers who fight to stay involved with their kids within the first few years after a breakup tend to maintain long-term relationships with their children.
Her study also found that fathers’ relationships with their children are often linked to the father’s relationship with his ex-wife. If the parents’ post-divorce relationship is full of conflict, fathers tend to be less involved with the children. If the relationship is based on cooperation and respect, fathers tend to be more involved and pay regular child support.
Most divorced parents will end up dating after the divorce, and many will get remarried. It’s natural to want the children to share in the new relationship. However, many experts say the rule of thumb is to wait a year after a divorce to begin dating. This allows both spouses to establish a new parenting pattern and allows children to settle into life after the divorce.
Of course, marriages often break up because one spouse has already found a new partner. In that case, it’s best not to introduce children to the new partner right away.
Many kids complain that when their parents begin dating, they never get to have any one-on-one time with them. Parents feel that they need to include their new partner in all activities to build a new family life for the children. This sort of premature family only serves to distance children from the parent. It’s important for both parents to spend time alone with the children, even after remarrying.
If a relationship with a new partner may not be long term, it’s best to prevent the children from developing an attachment to this new person. Otherwise, when the new partner leaves, the children will experience many of the same emotions all over again that they felt after the divorce.
Experts agree that it’s best to introduce children to new partners gradually and never tell children that the new person is their new mommy or daddy. The new partner should be referred to as a friend to the children.
Children often respond negatively to a new partner, and a parent can’t expect children to immediately like him or her. Children may feel that this person threatens their hopes of their parents reuniting. They may also feel that if they bond with this new person, they’re being disloyal to their other parent.
Children sometimes become upset when a parent remarries, even if they have grown to like the parent’s new partner. Children resist change, especially if it seems to threaten their relationship with a parent. Parents must be patient with children in these circumstances and give them a lot of time to adjust. Perhaps living with a new partner before getting married will help.
Fourteen-year-old Aaron has seen his father divorced twice, once from his mother and once from his stepmother. Now, his father is in another relationship. While he likes his dad’s new partner, he dreads the day they say that they’re getting married.
“I like Brenda like a lot,” Aaron says. “She’s really nice. But if they were to ever get married, I couldn’t go. I know that being married only twice is a small number compared to some kids’ parents each being married like five times, but they still hurt the same. I don’t know why it would be so hard. … It’s because I’ve seen it once and had my hopes up, but I don’t want that to happen again — get my hopes up high and have them fall twice as low as before.”
Moving away can be one of the most contentious issues in divorce, but relocating to a new city can be a positive step for a parent. It can mean a better job, more money or a bigger house. It can bring someone closer to relatives or to a new relationship. It means a fresh start. The truth is that a parent’s happiness helps that person be a better parent.
But relocating presents major challenges. It means that children often must deal with complicated travel arrangements and spend their summers and holidays away from their home and friends. For older kids, it can mean giving up their sports teams and summer jobs. Younger children often feel homesick while visiting the other parent in another town.