Divorce and separation can be traumatic for anyone involved, even and especially children and young ones. A 2017 study found that children in step, blended, or one-parent families aretwice as likely to have a mental disorder or need psychological help compared to those in traditional, “nuclear” families.
And yet there’s no denying that divorce and separation are prevalent and often needed for healthy futures. Today, we’re going over how to help kids cope with parental divorce or separation. About 50% of children in the United States willwitness the end of a parent’s marriage, and it’s often up to their parents with professional support to help protect and transition their child through a time of change in their life.
Here are some of the best and most key ways to help your child cope during a divorce or separation as they adjust to a new schedule and lifestyle.
Explaining Divorce and Separation to Your Child
Divorce is rarely, if ever, a happy occurrence. Explaining sad things to your children is hard, especially when these events will have a direct impact on their lives. When explaining divorce and separation to your child, be succinct but don’t sugarcoat.
According to bothBaby Centre UK andHealthyChildren.org from the American Academy of Pediatrics, keeping an honest and open conversation during this time is key for your child’s understanding and comfort.
Explain that you and your spouse will no longer be married or living in the same house. Both of you made an adult decision that this will make you happier, and while some changes will take place, this will be best for everyone involved. Clarify that this decision doesn’t mean that your child did anything wrong and that you both still love them very much.
You will both still take care of your child, just sometimes separately instead of together. When having this conversation, it’s important to tell your child or children about the divorce and separation alongside your soon-to-be-ex, when possible. This will help your children understand that the changes coming to the family are not one-sided. It will also prevent confusion, allowing your child to see that both of you are here to talk and explain any questions they may have.
If you do have more than one child, try to find a time to talk to both of them about the divorce and separation at once. While an older child might understand your words more easily, excluding a younger child during this important discussion can create confusion later on.
In worst cases, your older child might try to explain the divorce to your younger one without your knowledge. They will most likely be unable to do so in a clear way, which can cause further distress.
Taking the Emotion Out of Divorce Talks with Your Child
One of the hardest parts of explaining divorce and separation to a child is balancing truth with emotions. The last thing you and your ex-partner want to do is suggest that your child needs to emotionally support either of you during this talk.
However, separation is an extremely personal decision that is hard to explain simply and logically when so much is still left to be done. Planning your exact words when describing the separation ahead of time can do wonders when approaching this situation.
Here at Mighty + Bright, I’ve created a book calledWhat Happens When Parents Get Divorced which also aims to simplify and ease this conversation with your child or children. This book is loved by social workers and educators alike for its unique and down-to-earth explanation of divorce and transitioning to two households.
Whether you use my book, another resource, or your own plan, having a set of points and key phrases ahead of time can help you set the tone during this important discussion.
Keep and Create Space for Your Child’s Emotions
When helping and explaining divorce and separation to your child, allow them the space and to express and feel their emotions.
It can be tempting to frame the divorce or separation as a completely positive event in order to protect your child. However, especially for young children, any change in schedule or lifestyle will come with confusion and negative feelings.
Instead of trying to frame this change as positive, try to leave room for your child to feel both positive and negative feelings about this change. Ideally, your ex will be on the same page as you in this regard.
If so, you can express both positive and sad feelings about the change at hand together, when telling your child of the separation. Then, you can give your child space to do the same during the same discussion or during the following ones.
This will empower your child to tackle a difficult and large life change in whatever way feels most natural and comfortable for them.
Simplify Your Kid’s Co-Parenting Schedule
Some parent and guardian divorces and separations are best handled with sole custody of children. However, co-parenting is also extremely common yet difficult to explain to young ones. One of the best ways to explain co-parenting to children is with a shared calendar.
Here at Mighty + Bright, we stock aMagnetic Co-Parenting Calendar for Kids specifically designed for simple visual planning of co-parenting custody. This calendar is fully magnetic with dry-erase capabilities and can be placed on a magnetic fridge or hung on a wall with included command strips.
Reusable sticker sheets include blank stickers as well as different colors of women, men, heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples. These can be used to show which parent’s house a child will be staying at on which day, or something which parent or parents will be accompanying them.
Parents love our kit for providing comfort to children who simply want to know what’s happening next when days pass by too quickly to keep track of. Don’t be afraid to adjust the kit to your liking or make your own inspired calendar in this way, too.
The important part of co-parenting and easing your child’s mind is making any new or complicated plans easy for them to have input on and be reminded of, too.
Common Reactions to Parent Divorce/Separation
To support your child during and after divorce and separation, let’s explore some of the most common reactions they have. Keep in mind that some reactions are more common directly after a divorce, while others can develop over time.
In general, it’s best to keep an open mind and dialogue with your child to ensure that you can help them directly or find them professional help should they need it. Psychologists often see the following reaction from children after a parental divorce.
When we’re young, we believe that the world revolves around us. Even when we are introduced to siblings or friends, we still tend to think about ourselves first before considering other people. This is partly why it is so common for children to feel guilt when parents get divorced or start a separation.
From your kid’s point of view, this divorce or separation has a direct impact on their life and therefore might also be happening because of them in the first place. Clinical psychologist Jamie Howard, Ph.D. says that it iscommon for children to worry that they did something to cause the divorce. This is because they are egocentric in nature.
Because of this tendency, it’s important to explicitly tell your children that your divorce or separation is not a result of their actions or existence. This can help ease their minds of worries that they may know consciously or subconsciously.
Unfortunately, some divorces and separations do result from disagreements surrounding childcare. Even so, these separations are still due to a difference in values between spouses and not a direct result of the child’s actions.
Spend a bit of extra time with your child to explain this to them in a kind and comforting manner, and ask your ex-spouse to do the same if they seem to be up to it.
Regression and Self-Care
Another common result of divorce or separation in children is a simple need for extra support. This can also be referred to as regression, as you might find that your child needs extra support to accomplish things they once were able to do alone.
Child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Stephanie Samar, PsyD, says that yourchild’s sleep routine might be disrupted. And in general, your child may need you to do more self-care activities for them than you were previously used to.
To help your child in these instances, you’ll have to identify areas in which they are most likely to need help without overstepping and taking away their responsibilities. Creating a balanced and easy-to-understand co-parenting schedule will make this easier as well.
Anger and Irritability
We’ve all become irritable and even angry when something confusing or unexpected occurs. Children are not immune to this and may become irritable and throw tantrums as a result of parental divorce or separation.
Typically, this reaction begins almost immediately after a child learns of their parent’s divorce as a coping mechanism for overwhelming emotions. In some, the anger can end after a few weeks, but for others, it can be hard for this new feeling to fade. Let your child have space to communicate their anger and feelings to you and your partner if comfortable.
Sharing your own thoughts and feelings about the divorce in a calm and mature way can also help your child feel validated. After all, change is overwhelming! Finally, don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional therapist or psychiatrist if this behavior becomes destructive or worsens.
Lost of Faith in Marriage
Children who experience parental divorce or separation are also prone to lose faith in marriage when it comes to their own lives and prospects. Statistics vary, but many researchers agree thatindividuals with divorced parents are more likely to get a divorce themselves.
After all, witnessing a divorce or separation, particularly one handled poorly, can easily leave an impression on your child. This is particularly true if your child is old enough to understand the concept of dating before marriage, as seen in older adults.
Your divorce or separation can cast doubt on your kid’s current or future relationships, as no one wants to go through that stressful period by choice. So how do you combat this?
Depending on who you ask, losing faith in the concept of marriage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of seeking to frame a future marriage as holy, essential, or typically good, be simple and honest with your kid.
Some marriages work out, and some marriages don’t. While the marriage between you and your ex-partner didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean that marriage as a whole is always good or always bad. Emphasize to your child that choice and seeking happiness for everyone involved is always the best solution.
Helping Kids Cope During a Parent’s Divorce or Separation
Divorce and partner separation is never fun or easy. This goes for your kid or kids, too. The creation of co-parenting schedules, seeing a parent move out, and even just hearing about divorce can all cause stress and anxiety in your young one.
When helping your kid cope during a divorce or separation, everything starts with clear and heartfelt communication. Speak with your child or children with your ex-partner to clarify your next steps.
As your child adjusts to a new life with co-parenting schedules, keep in mind that children canexpress distress differently from adults. Communicating with your child through books, drawings, workbooks, and stories are all great ways to check in on your child and help them cope.
Here at Mighty + Bright, we believe in fighting for our kids and not letting our darkest times define us. Don’t be afraid to use resources and ask for help to give your child the utmost comfort during a tough transitional period. You’ve got this!