Children of all ages are affected when their parents divorce, even in the most amicable situations. Though different age groups may react to the splitting of their family in very different ways, they all invariably feel some mixture of shock, overwhelm, fear, and confusion by the unexpected threat to their security.
Effects divorce can have on a child
Divorce gives rise to feelings of uncertainty, anger, and sadness as the family unit your child once knew no longer exists. Younger children, in particular, may have trouble understanding what’s going on, and why they have to go to different homes to see each parent. They may find it hard to comprehend why their parents split up, and wonder if it’s because of something they did.
Older children, on the other hand, often experience anger about the divorce because of how it alters their lives and may accuse their parents of being mean or selfish, blaming one parent for the divorce and aligning themselves with the other one. Unless these emotions are dealt with in a healthy, supportive way, they can harm your child’s life and have a profound effect on the formation and stability of their future relationships.
How to help your child cope with the trauma of divorce
Divorce is likely to be misinterpreted unless you tell your child what is happening and how it will affect him/her so he/she can be prepared for the changes that are coming. Children of divorce often believe the conflict between their parents is their fault and may feel it’s up to them to bring their parents back together, which inevitably causes even more stress.
Your child needs the ongoing love and concern of both parents – regardless of the reason for the divorce. You can dramatically reduce his/her pain by making his/her well-being your top priority. Following are some practical guidelines for how to help your child adjust to his/her new life and deal with the upheaval constructively, with a minimum of hurt.
- Don’t keep the divorce a secret or wait until the last minute to tell your child.
- If possible, tell him or her about the divorce together.
- Answer your child’s questions simply, honestly, and in age-appropriate ways, avoiding unnecessary details or discussing your and your spouse’s faults or problems. Your child doesn’t need to know all the whys of the divorce. What he/she needs to know is how his/her life will change because of it.
- Keep the ugly stuff away. The conflict between parents is the most devastating part of divorce for your child. Don’t fight or bad mouth each other in front of him/her, or speak negatively about your ex to your child.
- Reassure your child that the divorce is not his/her fault and that your struggles as a couple have absolutely nothing to do with him/her.
- A common fear held by children of divorce is that just as their parents stopped loving each other, they will stop loving them too and reject or abandon them. Assure your child that you will still both be his/her parents and that you will continue to love him/her and remain involved in his/her life even though the marriage is ending, and you won’t be living together anymore.
- Don’t discuss adult issues such as child support or legal matters in front of your child.
- Children love both their parents. Don’t put them in the middle and make them take sides in the battles between you and their other parent or force them to choose between you and your ex.
- Don’t use your child as a sounding board for you to vent about your ex. Remember, he or she is also your child’s parent, and your child loves him/her too.
- Encourage and support your child’s relationship with his/her other parent and encourage communication between them.
- Avoid pumping your child for information about your ex, or using him/her as an intermediary to carry messages back and forth between you.
- Help your child adjust to the change by establishing routines he/she can rely on that will provide a sense of continuity and as much stability and structure as possible to his/her daily life.
- Encourage your child to share his/her feelings and concerns openly and honestly, and acknowledge and validate them in a non-judgmental way. Ask questions to help him/her identify and name his/her emotions, and let him/her know it’s okay to feel whatever he/she is feeling.
- Give your child room to process his/her feelings without jumping in and trying to intervene. Honor his/her need for an adjustment period following the divorce, and don’t make him/her feel as though he/she needs to be happy or on board with it.
- Get support. Your child may benefit from participating in a children’s divorce support groups such as the school-based Banana Splits, or DC4K. Support groups provide a safe place for him/her to meet new friends who are going through the same thing he/she is and know he/she is not alone, as well as be able to share openly about his/her feelings without fear of hurting one or both parents.
Tips for developing a consistent co-parenting approach
- Create a parenting plan that gives your child access to both of you, and that allows him/her to engage in a loving relationship with his/her other parent as well.
- Strive to agree with your ex on matters such as discipline and routines so that you don’t undermine each other’s efforts. Children need consistent control and direction, and to know what is expected of them.
- As much as possible, try to present a united front to your child and keep things structured in the same way in both households.
- Don’t let your child manipulate or play you and your ex against each other.
- Co-parent peacefully, and include your ex in school and other activities
- Don’t compete for your child’s affections by doing things such as buying him/her expensive gifts your ex can’t afford. What your child needs is both parents’ time, love, and attention.
Bibliotherapy for children of divorce
Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic method that uses literature to help children learn how to understand their feelings and what is happening in their life by relating to characters and/or situations in a book. Reading about other children who have dealt with similar issues helps them alter their perspective and manage their feelings as they see how others have overcome similar emotions.
As the child makes the connection, he/she realizes he/she is not alone in his/her experience, learns how to express emotions he/she previously held back and gains insights and knowledge that helps him/her see the situation from a different, more positive perspective.
The use of books also encourages and facilitates communication between parents and their children. Since the focus is on the book, it decreases the tension of discussing tough topics. As they discuss the book together, the child can talk about his/her feelings to his/her parents using characters in the story.
Christian counseling for children of divorce
Christian counseling involves a combination of Biblical principles and clinical intervention. A trained Christian family therapist can help you and your child learn how to deal with your broken family and the issues triggered by the divorce. Additionally, having a neutral party for your child to talk to can help him/her process his/her feelings in a healthy way. If you have questions and/or would like to set up an appointment, please give us a call today.
Resources:Banana Splits Resource Center, www.bananasplitsresourcecenter.org.
DivorceCare for Kids, https://www.dc4k.org/.
Children Divorce. Virginia State Bar, https://www.vsb.org/site/publications/children-divorce/.
Children and Divorce (January 2017). American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-and-Divorce-001.aspx.
Myrna El Fakhry Tuttle (March 3, 2020). Do Books Relieve Children’s Pain During Divorce? LawNow, www.lawnow.org/do-books-relieve-childrens-pain-during-divorce/.
Wayne Parker (February 20, 2022). Key Statistics About Kids From Divorced Families, Verywell family, https://www.verywellfamily.com/children-of-divorce-in-america-statistics-1270390.
“Broken Heart”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Alone”, Courtesy of Joseph Gonzalez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Happy Family”, Courtesy of Ann Danilina, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Carried by Mom”, Courtesy of Xavier Mouton Photographie, Unsplash.com, CC0 License