The United States has the sixth-highest divorce rate in the world, with approximately 50% of marriages ending in divorce.1 Even though divorce rates recently hit a record low, there were still 630,505 divorces in 2020, many of which impacted children.2 4
In 1970, 84% of children lived in a two-parent home with their biological parents. In 2009, just 45.8% of children reached 17 while living with the same family structure they were born into. When the CDC stopped gathering complete data on children affected by divorce in 1988, over one million children were involved.3
Children discovering their parents are divorcing can feel that their worlds are shattering. Suddenly, everything that seemed stable becomes disrupted, and they struggle to adjust to this new uncertainty. How children react to divorce is unique to each child’s personality, coping skills, parental attachment, and emotional maturity, among other factors. But regardless of how well the children cope, they are undoubtedly profoundly affected. We’ve put together some resources to help you guide them through this change.
You probably have a lot on your mind while starting the divorce process. There are a few guidelines to remember so you can help your children while you undergo a divorce:
Divorce is difficult for everyone involved, and you should seek support as you go forward. That support may come from your community, family, friends, professionals, or clergy. Do not rely on your children for emotional support, even if they appear open to it. Ensure that your child has emotional support from an outside source through the process as well.
Once you and your partner have decided to live separately and established plans for divorce, talk to your children about your decision. There are no hard and fast rules for approaching this challenging conversation, but it is best if both parents are present for the discussion.
It is critical to refrain from expressing feelings of blame, anger, or guilt when broaching the topic as a family. As parents, you must maintain control and keep any negative emotions about your situation or partner from creating an uncomfortable or toxic environment.
Before talking to the children, you and your partner should agree on what you will say and how you’ll address the topic, relative to their ages, maturity levels, and temperaments. One of the most important messages you need to convey to your children is that they are in no way responsible for what has happened. They are not to blame, and there’s nothing that they could have done (or not done) to fix your marriage. These life changes result from your adult relationship and the choices you and your partner have made, not them.
Children of different ages frequently interpret divorce as their fault in some way, making it all the more essential that you reassure them that they are not to blame. Reassure your children that both parents will remain involved in their lives and that just because adults choose to live apart, that in no way diminishes your love and commitment as parents.
Be open with your children regarding your plans and answer their questions as truthfully as possible. Children don't need to know all of the details behind a divorce, but you should give them enough information so that they can prepare for upcoming changes, answering questions like:
You may not have all the answers at this point, but you and your partner should be as open as possible and realize that each decision affects every aspect of your child’s life.
Very young children need less information and may grasp that their parents still love them but will live separately from now on. Older children and teenagers may pose more questions based on their observations of the family dynamic.
Another factor to keep in mind is that children are individuals, and some may not have an immediate reaction. Some kids repress feelings or express their fear and anger in other ways, such as at school or with friends. Help them connect to communities outside the immediate family so they can healthily process the divorce. Watch for sudden, frequent stomach pains, headaches, and outbursts that may point to unresolved feelings.
Grief is a common emotion both children and adults feel when divorce occurs. Children grieve the loss of the family unit and the security of having both parents present. Many children latch onto an unwarranted hope that their parents will work things out and resolve the problem without divorce.
While mourning this loss of unity is natural, it should lead to acceptance of a new reality for you and your children. The following tips will help your kids cope with the upset of divorce.
Children should know that their feelings are valid and that their parents take them seriously when they’re honest about their experiences.
By inviting children to discuss their emotions in words, they can better understand their behaviors. Be a good listener to your children and urge them to talk about the underlying reasons for their sadness, anger, and other emotions. If your child is uncomfortable speaking with you on the topic, try connecting them with another trusted relative, a therapist, or a teacher.
Let your children know that you think their feelings are valid, and encourage them to express themselves before offering ways to make things better. By empathizing with comments like "I know you feel sad now" or "I know it can be lonely without Mom around," you're allowing your children to feel negative emotions without being entrenched by them.
Ask your children what they think might help them feel better, and listen carefully to their responses. If they have no solutions, you might suggest a few ideas at this point. Sometimes helping someone feel better is simply being there and listening to them. Sometimes a walk or a favorite toy or activity will help. Young children may feel better by calling the parent who has moved out or drawing a picture for their mom or dad.
Separation and divorce are stressful and emotional, but you must keep yourself healthy. Now would be a good time to start if you're not currently seeing a therapist or counselor. As the divorce details (such as child custody and financial arrangements) escalate, emotions can get the best of you. Having a therapist help you through this challenging time can help you stay afloat — and help you help your children, too.
Prioritize self-care and model tending to your emotional needs through journaling, exercising, spending time with friends, and engaging in meaningful activities. Managing stress may be easier with a therapist or counselor. If you don't have access to mental healthcare, lean on your support system of family, friends, or a combination for advice and an outside perspective of the situation.
Ensure your privacy when discussing divorce details with family, friends, or your lawyer. Keep interactions civil with your ex, especially in front of the kids.
It’s easy (and understandable) for strong emotions to overwhelm you in “at fault” divorce cases. Keep your feelings of blame and instances of name-calling away from the kids. At the same time, you should ensure that any correspondence, such as emails, text messages, and voicemails, stays secure and cannot be discovered by children.
If a private therapist is outside your budget, consider other options for mental health guidance, such as group therapy, online support groups, or religious resources to help you stay grounded during this upheaval. If possible, look for a family therapist who can assist both you and your children in coping with the situation.
Establishing and maintaining a consistent daily routine is essential for all family members' mental health and well-being during a divorce. Children often feel uprooted when a divorce occurs, and minimizing unpredictable schedules and abrupt separations can help give them a sense of stability.
Children benefit from one-on-one time with both parents during divorce. Despite inconveniences, you should work together to arrange visitation schedules, ensuring the kids have bonding time with each parent.
Assess your children's coping skills by analyzing their behavior. Are the kids acting differently? Have their grades or school performance changed? Are they regressing to earlier developmental stages? Are their emotions interrupting daily routines?
While not all children show outward behavioral changes, watching for them in your children can help determine if they could benefit from therapy, counseling, or assistance in expressing their feelings. Divorce can be the event that initiates symptoms of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Staying focused on your children's behavior helps get them to help as soon as possible if they need it.
Divorce is usually a last resort for parents, but some find it’s the best solution for their families. While most children will encounter an occasional argument between their parents, it is essential to avoid fighting, screaming, name-calling, or violence around their children. This behavior creates a hostile environment in the home and can make children worried and afraid.
Conduct yourself as an example to your kids. They are forming their personalities and behaviors, and how you conduct yourself now will broadly impact their future relationships and coping strategies.
Employing a mediator or divorce counselor can give couples an environment to air their grievances and pain without harming the children. Working together will spare your kids from hurt caused by repressed bitterness and anger.
Whenever possible, you should make adjustments to living arrangements gradually. The following are some possible living arrangement outcomes:
One parent has sole custody
Parents share joint custody
Joint custody, where one parent has "tie-breaking" authority in legal, medical, and educational settings
Living arrangement determinations involve many factors, such as:
Which living arrangement will be best for the kids?
What role does location play in the situation?
How will splitting time 50/50 between two homes impact the children?
Is sharing a home with your ex an option?
Whatever the eventual living arrangement may be, remember that your child's needs should come first. Don't let custody disputes turn into a bloody battle zone, and don't use your kids as a means to hurt one another. Focus on what will make the children happiest when deciding how to handle holidays, birthdays, and vacations. Parents should make these decisions without putting children on the spot by asking them to choose.
Preteens may need different schedules for activities with each parent. Children at this age benefit from consistent support from both parents, but they may resist spending time with a parent if it interferes with school and friendships. Stay flexible with time-sharing.
Your ex may influence your child, leading them to take sides during a divorce. Don't let this crush you, and maintain your visitation schedule, emphasizing the importance of parental involvement.
In "friendly" divorces, arrangements for spending summers or school years with each parent may be easy to navigate, especially if you live in the same area. If one parent moves further away, you should make new arrangements to ensure they still get quality time with the kids.
Whenever possible, both parents should work to establish routines and systems of discipline that are consistent in both households. Discuss and work with your ex to develop bedtime routines, household rules, chores, and homework expectations. Doing so will reduce anxiety and resentment, especially in younger children.
Stay consistent with rules and punishments in your home. You can’t control what happens when they are with the other parent, but keeping your household structured makes children less insecure and more respectful of your parental authority.
Resist the temptation to spoil your children by buying them toys and gifts to replace spending time with them. Letting them get away with breaking the rules or acting out does not serve their interests and can trouble your relationship down the line. Give them physical and emotional affection and be there to listen to them: nothing replaces quality time in a healthy, open relationship with a parent.
Divorce is a major crisis for any family. However, working with your former spouse and civilly communicating benefits your children and reinforces the strength of the family unit, even when it’s altered. Keep in mind the following tips as you move forward.
Get help dealing with your struggles with the divorce. You're an example for your children, and you must maintain control and cope in healthy ways.
Be patient with your children and yourself. Grief, anger, resentment, and sadness are common emotions felt by everyone in a family going through a divorce. Take time to heal, and give children time to heal as well.
Recognize symptoms of stress. Watch your children's behaviors, and if there are signs that they are struggling academically, socially, or emotionally, consult with a child or family therapist, school counselor, or doctor about ways to help them cope.
Know that you and your children will adjust. Changes are challenging for anyone and will undoubtedly be difficult for children, regardless of age. Finding new coping skills and relying on your inner strength benefit everyone during this difficult time.
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World Population Review. (2022). Divorce rate by state 2022. World Population Review. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/divorce-rate-by-state.
Centers for Disease Control. (2022). Marriage and divorce. Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htm.
Anderson, J. (2014, November). The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorce. The Linacre Quarterly, 81(4), 378–387. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4240051/.
Wang, W. (2020, November 10). The U.S. Divorce Rate Has Hit a 50-Year Low. Institute for Family Studies. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-us-divorce-rate-has-hit-a-50-year-low.