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Helping Children Cope With Divorce

For children of separating parents, divorce can be a frightening time which can heighten fears of abandonment. Parents, who both loved one another at one time, now no longer love one another. This can be confusing for children who may wonder whether their parents may stop loving them and “divorce” them, too. At a time when children need reassurance the most, well-intentioned parents, motivated by a desire to spare their children additional stress, often avoid discussions with children about the separation. This can have the opposite effect of heightening a child’s fears as their imaginations conjure up the worst possible consequences. The good news is that many children emerge from the divorce process with healthy self-images and few problems. This article is designed to help provide parents with tools to help their children cope with divorce.

Breaking the News

As soon as you are certain of your plans, talk to your children about your decision to live apart. Although there is no easy way to do this, it is generally best for this to be done jointly – with both parents present for the conversation. It is important to try to leave fault, blame, anger and bitterness out of the conversation. As this can be difficult, it is best to practice what is going to be said in advance. Seeking the help of a joint professional counselor can be helpful if you need assistance in determining how to best describe the situation in age-appropriate terms.

Rule Number 1 – Avoid Conflict where Possible

Conflict between parents – separated or not- is emotionally damaging for kids. How you behave now will teach your children valuable lessons they will use in the future as to how to resolve their own future problems. Model good behavior. Do not put your children in the middle of your arguments. If your spouse says something with which you disagree in front of the children, defuse the tension by agreeing that is something that needs to be discussed and re-set it for a time when you can do so when the children are not present.

Rule Number 2 – Do Not Disparage your Spouse in Front of the Children

Guess what? Your children intuitively know their DNA makeup is ½ Dad and ½ Mom. When you say your spouse is bad, you are telling the child he or she is bad, too. Kids understand this even while many adult parents do not. Be polite and use tact. Not only does this set a good example, it also sets the mood for your ex to be gracious in response. Take the high road even if your spouse does not. Your children will grow and respect the difference over time.

Rule Number 3 – Provide Reassurance and Unconditonal Love

Tell your children both parents love them unconditionally. You can not repeat this enough. Tell them your spouse loves them too and always will. Reassure your children they can and should enjoy themselves at your ex’s home. While acknowledging it can be difficult to leave you for your ex’s, remind them you’ll be together again soon and tell them they should not worry about you and should have a good time with your ex and other family members. When children return and talk of the fun they had, express your happiness (as hard as this may be). Children who feel comfortable traveling between households will learn they can share their feelings. Children of divorce whose comments are saved and later used by the parent the child confided in as a springboard for criticism of the other parent or in future litigation, often feel betrayed which can lead the child to learn to hide feelings from both parents over time.

Rule Number 4 – Provide Stability and Structure

Divorce usually means children’s routines and schedules will change. In a divorce, these schedule changes come at an emotional time when a child’s ability to cope with new feelings and worries may already be challenged. When so much is awhirl, maintaining stability can be helpful and comforting. This does not mean you must maintain the same rigid schedule as your spouse, but creating some regular routines at both households can be helpful. Maintaining the same school, supporting continued participation in afterschool activities and friendships, retaining the same bedtime and bedtime rituals, can be reassuring.

Rule Number 5 – Help Children Express their Feelings

Kids suffer loss in a divorce, too. There is a loss of the family and life they knew and the ability to have access to both parents simultaneously. You can help your children adjust to these new circumstances by encouraging your child to share their feelings. Listening and validating their feelings of sadness can help them find words for their feelings as many children have difficulty expressing feelings. You can help them by recognizing their moods and encouraging them to talk. Reading books that discuss divorce and children can also be a helpful activity. See our age appropriate readings lists by following the links at the bottom of this page.

It is important not to dismiss children’s feelings and to clear up misunderstandings. Be patient as many kids may seem to understand the reason for the divorce one day, but not seem to understand the next. Be prepared to repeat the explanation for the divorce over and over, if needed. Be prepared to reassure and remind your children that both parents will continue to love them and that they are not responsible for the divorce.

Rule Number 6 – Know when to get Help

While some children go through divorce with relative few problems. Others may have a difficult time. While anger, anxiety and mild depression are normal, the following are “red flags” signaling that there may be more serious problems. If things continue to get worse, rather than improve after several months, it may be helpful for your child to have assistance from a counselor or therapist with whom they may share their feelings without fear that either parent will be involved. The following are warning signs of more serious problems:

  • Inability to Sleep
  • Poor Concentration
  • Violent Outbursts or Anger with Loss of Control
  • Trouble at School, Falling Grades
  • Self-Injury, Cutting, or Eating Disorders
  • Severe Withdrawal from Family and Friends
  • Injures Others or Pets
  • Refusal to Engage in Favorite Activities
  • Drug or Alcohol Use
  • Promiscuous Sexual Activity

Any of these issues should be taken seriously and discussed with your child’s doctor, teacher, school counselor. Consult a child therapist for guidance on coping with specific problems.

Last Rule – Take Care of Yourself!

Above all, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Separation and divorce are highly stressful. Finding ways to manage your own stress is essential. Exercise or a long mindless walk can be helpful to clear your head and help burn off the stress hormones. Endorphins, known as the body’s own feel good hormones, are released with exercise. Get help. This is not the time to “go it alone.” Find a support group, a counselor or consult your doctor or religious leaders to refer you to other resources. Remember, you are not alone. Statistics show most families go through a divorce these days and do just fine.

Lynn Landis-Brown, P.C., represents clients in the Pikes Peak area, Front Range area, and Rocky Mountain area of Colorado, including Colorado Springs, Castle Rock, Monument, Woodmoor, Broadmoor, Manitou Springs, Fort Carson, Fountain, Cimarron Hills, Black Forest, Canon City, Woodland Park, Cripple Creek, Victor, Parker, Pueblo, Peterson Air Force Base, Schriever Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station; United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Northern American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), El Paso County, Teller County, Douglas County, Adams County, Elbert County and Fremont County.