More than a million children a year experience their parents’ divorce. It’s a stressful time for the entire family, full of changes for everyone involved. Children are creatures of habit and routine, so divorce often turns their world upside down.
The good news is that you can make your child’s adjustment to these changes much easier, simply by the way you choose to interact with your spouse.
How to tell them
It’s best if you and your spouse can tell your children about the divorce together. Make sure the children understand that you both still love them and will take care of them. Speak honestly and simply, and skip the ugly details.
Use simple phrases like: "Your mom (or dad) and I have been having trouble getting along, so we think it’s best for us to live apart."
Anxiety and anger
Initially, children may be most interested in concrete things, such as where they’ll live and what school they’ll attend. Try to make arrangements that disrupt their routines as little as possible. Even if things must change drastically, establish new routines and then stick to them. This helps children of all ages feel more secure.
Your child may respond to the stress of divorce with strong emotions — anxiety, grief, depression or even relief. But the most common response is anger. This anger may turn inward, resulting in depression and withdrawal, or it may turn outward and cause behavioral problems.
Regression may occur
During these stressful times, some toddlers revert to behavior they had previously outgrown. For example, they may demand to be fed by a parent, or start sucking their thumb again or wetting the bed. There may also be a resurgence of separation anxiety, as young children worry about being abandoned.
To try to reduce your toddler’s daily stress, you may want to allow extra time for your child to complete tasks. It may help to spend time alone with your child, or arrange for him or her to spend time with another adult — perhaps a grandparent or family friend — who is of the same sex as the absent parent.
Keep kids out of the fight
How your child adapts to your divorce is largely dependent on how you and your spouse act, especially toward each other.
- Never force your children to choose sides.
- Don’t use your children as messengers or go-betweens.
- Don’t argue or discuss child support issues in front of your children.
- Avoid pumping children for information about the other parent.
- Don’t use your child as a pawn to hurt the other parent.
Most importantly, don’t speak badly about your ex-spouse to your children. Children realize that they are a mixture of both parents. If you continually criticize their other parent, it’s easy for children to start doubting themselves.
Hopes and fears
Many preschoolers think they’re to blame for their parents’ divorce. If they hadn’t been such bad girls or boys, perhaps their parents would have stayed together. Or maybe they once became angry and wished one of their parents would disappear. Reassure them, repeatedly if necessary, that they had nothing to do with the divorce.
Elementary-school-age children sometimes express hope that their parents will get back together. Spending time with each of you individually can help your child adjust to the reality that his or her parents now have separate lives.
Don’t spoil them
It may be tempting to relax your parental rules for a child grieving over a divorce. But this will only make your child feel more insecure. Children prefer a stable routine, even if they insist upon testing your boundaries and limits. If your children share time between two households, it’s important for the rules to be similar for each place.
This is especially important for preteens and adolescents, who may become more involved in the risk-taking and rebellion common for this age group.
Counseling can help
Some parents feel so hurt or overwhelmed by their divorce that they may even turn to their children for comfort and direction. Avoid asking children to take on such adult responsibilities.
The changes of divorce are tough for everyone. Many adults going through divorce need to see a counselor to help them sort through their feelings. Social agencies, mental health centers, women’s centers and support groups can all be helpful. Maintaining your own emotional health will help you assist your children through this difficult time.
Children may also benefit from counseling, especially if they are experiencing:
- Academic and peer problems
- Irrational fears and compulsive behavior
- Sleep or eating problems
- Changes in personality
Put your children first
When you get a divorce, the last thing you want to do is interact with your ex-spouse. Make the effort to work together on common parenting goals for the sake of your children. When you work out custody arrangements, think about what your children need, not what you want. The most important way to help your children cope with your divorce is to help them maintain a strong, loving relationship with both parents.