Divorce
Resources
Basic InformationMore InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersLinksBook Reviews
Related Topics

Family & Relationship Issues
Grief & Bereavement Issues

Helping children to cope with divorce

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. & Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Divorce is very hard on children. It radically changes their entire lives by changing their families and living conditions and by challenging their ability to trust in the stability and reliability of parental support. Lacking proper perspective due to their young age, inexperience and immaturity, children are prone to misinterpreting the reasons divorce is occurring, and to exaggerating how divorce will affect them. They may worry that they caused the divorce by being a "bad child", or that they will be abandoned or neglected. They may come to believe that no one is trustworthy. They may become quite upset, angry, ashamed, embarrassed and outraged. They might also become fearful and withdrawn or anxious and clingy. Lacking an adult's mature brain and experience, they may express these emotions by acting them out in the form of regressed behavior (bed wetting, thumb-sucking, etc.), temper tantrums, talking back to authority, cursing, impulsiveness, drug use, running away, in the form of depression or anxiety disorders or even in the form of medical disorders. They may also feel an inappropriate responsibility to 'hate' one parent and 'protect' the other.

Divorce leaves a mark on all children it touches, although different children are affected in different ways. Many children are initially reactive but eventually are resilient and end up adjusting to their changed circumstances. Such children may approach relationships with some trepidation, but be otherwise functional. Other children react profoundly to divorce, end up coping in dysfunctional and self-destructive ways and go on to have continuing life problems. Still other children appear to adjust to divorce at first but go on to show dramatic emotional and relationship problems in later life that are likely rooted in the divorce experience. Children's post-divorce resiliency is a function of their personalities and temperaments, but also how they are treated during the divorce and how the divorce experience alters their lives. It is thus very important that divorcing parents do what they can to minimize the impact of their divorce on their children.

Helping Children Cope

  • Tell children divorce is not their fault. Most children begin life with a self-centered mindset; they see the world as revolving around them. When confronted with divorce, a young child's reaction is thus likely to be a self-centered one; to think that he or she must have caused divorce to happen. For this reason, both divorcing parents should make it clear to their children that their decision to divorce was not caused by anything that they (their children) did, that they (their children) are still loved, and that both parents will continue to love and protect their children despite the changed circumstances. Parents will likely need to repeat these messages of blamelessness and love many times before their children will hear and accept them.

  • Keep children's living circumstances and routines consistent. Keeping children's living circumstances and routines consistent is another important way parents can help shield them from the disruptive effects of divorce. Consistency promotes children's trust which helps them to continue feeling secure, safe and protected. If at all feasible and practical, children should remain in the house they are used to living in, continue to attend their regular school, and maintain household and family routines they are used to. Where changes are unavoidable, key routines can be maintained that provide continuity (such as reading stories at bedtime). If children come to spend time in more than one household parents should agree on how privileges and discipline will be handled across those households, so that children's experience is consistent and predictable.

  • Keep boundaries intact. In a healthy family, parents keep a boundary between how they interact with one another and how they interact with their children. A healthy parent/child boundary shields children from adult realities and helps partners parent in a more coordinated and effective manner. To the extend that divorcing parents can preserve their parental boundaries and maintain healthy parenting-related communication, their children will be better off. There are a variety of ways parents can perserve their parenting boundary:

    Remain calm. Regardless of how they are feeling, parents should do what they can to remain calm, to avoid arguing, and to avoid criticizing the other parent while around their children, so as to shield their children. Taking these steps helps to preserve children's sense of safety. The more conflict children are forced to digest, the worse their adjustment tends to be.

    Don't triangulate children. "Triangulation" is a therapy term used to describe a situation where divorced parents come to pass messages through their children rather than speaking directly with one another. Parents also triangulate their children when they ask them to spy on the other parent, and when they use their children as pawns with which to manipulate their ex-spouses. Implicitly or explicitly, parents who triangulate ask their children to side with them against the other parent, a maneuver which forces children into a damaging situation where they must disown a parent they love, or lie.

    Don't allow children to become adult confidants. While children are often motivated to comfort their divorced parents, they are seldom mature enough to actually handle such a role. Parents who mistakenly confide in their children can easily overload them, leaving them feeling anxious, angry, depressed, out of control, and unable to talk about it for fear of further upsetting their parent. Upset divorced parents should find appropriate adult confidants (friends, family, therapists, etc.) when they need to vent or discuss their difficulties adapting to their changed circumstances rather than discussing such material with their children.

  • Invite children to talk, listen to what they have to say, and provide love and emotional support. Anger and anxiety are common child reactions to divorce. Parents can help their children to work through upset feelings by encouraging them to express and talk about them in appropriate ways. Different children will express their feelings differently with some talking about them, and others acting them out. Listen carefully to what children have to say and what they do. Normalize reasonable and justified emotions. Correct and explain fears that are mistaken or out of proportion and help them to understand why this is so. At the same time, express love and concern for children's welfare, and allow them to escape discussion when talking becomes uncomfortable. Expect to address the same concerns on multiple occasions as it may take children many repetitions before their fears are allayed. Consider taking the children into family therapy with a qualified therapist if their adjustment proves especially difficult.