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Helping Your Child Through a Divorce

Separation and divorce aren’t easy for anyone, but they can devastate a child. We’ve got tips and advice to make it a little easier.

Last Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Helping your child through a divorce

The United States has the sixth-highest divorce rate in the world, with approximately 50% of marriages ending in divorce.¹ According to the CDC, there were 630,505 divorces in 2020, and many of those impacted children.²

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 in. 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 often feel that their worlds are shattering. Suddenly, everything that appeared 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.

Jump to:

Main takeaways
Breaking the news
Dealing with kids’ reactions
Helping kids cope
Consistency is essential
Fighting in front of the kids
Adjusting to new living arrangements
Parenting under pressure
References

Main takeaways

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.

  • Keep conflict, arguments, and legal discussions away from the kids.
  • Keep established daily routines as much as possible and avoid disruptions.
  • Refrain from expressing negativity and blame around the children. Reserve these discussions for friends outside the home, your therapist, or your lawyer.
  • Ensure that both parents stay engaged in their kids’ lives.

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.

Breaking the news

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 will say it, 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.

Dealing with kids' reactions

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:

  • Who will be moving out?
  • Where will each parent be living?
  • With whom will the children live?
  • Will schooling be affected?
  • How will arrangements work out for visitations?
  • How will daily routines change?
  • Where will the holidays be spent?
  • Will the children still be able to see their friends?
  • Will summer plans (such as camp or vacations) be affected?
  • Will the child still be able to participate in their favorite activities?

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 among friends. Help them connect to communities outside the immediate family so they can healthily process the divorce, and keep an eye out for sudden, frequent stomach pains or headaches and outbursts that may point to unresolved feelings.

Helping kids cope

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.

Encourage honesty

Children should know that their feelings are valid and that their parents take them seriously when they’re honest about their experiences.

Encourage expression

By inviting children to discuss their emotions in words, they can come to a better understanding of 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.

Legitimize children's feelings

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.

Offer support

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.

Stay healthy

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 complicated time can help you stay afloat — and help you help your children, too.

Find ways to manage stress

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.

Keep details in check

When discussing the divorce details with family, friends, or your lawyer, ensure your privacy. Keep interactions civil with your ex, especially in front of the kids.

Take the high road

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 unable to be discovered by children.

Get help

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, you might look for a family therapist who can assist both you and your children in coping with the situation.

Consistency is essential

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 so the kids have bonding time with each parent.

Assess your children’s coping skills by examining 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?

Watching for behavioral changes in your children will help determine if they need therapy, counseling, or assistance 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 you get them to help if they need it.

Fighting in front of the kids

Divorce is usually a last resort for parents. Often, it’s the best solution for preventing or stopping a toxic relationship from negatively impacting the children. 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 type of 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 where they can air their grievances and pain without harming the children. Working together will spare your kids from hurt caused by repressed bitterness and anger.

Adjusting to new living arrangements

Whenever possible, you should make adjustments to living arrangements gradually. Some of the following are possibilities for types of living situations that you may choose:

  • One parent has sole custody
  • Parents share joint custody
  • Joint custody where one parent has “tie-breaking” authority in legal, medical, and educational settings

Your decisions regarding living arrangements 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 living arrangement you choose, 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.

Parenting under pressure

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 expectations for bedtimes, household rules, chores, and homework. Doing so will reduce anxiety and resentment, especially in younger children.

Stay consistent with rules and punishments in your home. You may not be able to control what happens when they are with the other parent, but keeping your household consistently 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 is 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.

References

[1] Divorce rate by state 2022 (2022). World Population Review. Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/divorce-rate-by-state.

[2] Marriage and divorce (2022). Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htm.

[3] Anderson, J. (2014, November). The impact of family structure on the health of children: Effects of divorce. National Library of Medicine, PubMed Central. Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4240051/.