- Divorce presents one of the toughest emotional challenges a child can face.
- The grieving process isn’t linear and although divorce is common, every child will cope with it in their own way and time.
- Parents need to provide stability and comfort during and after the divorce process.
- Being supportive and understanding can make children feel safer, more secure, and loved, helping them navigate their way through the post-divorce trauma.
Divorce is common, but that doesn’t make it any easier to handle. Trying to process your own feelings while carrying on with day-to-day life can feel, at best, overwhelming, at worst, almost impossible.
The complications that accompany divorce become far more intricate when there are children involved. Remember, no matter how sad, angry, or confused you may feel, they may be dealing with similar emotions without your years of life experience.
There is no perfect way to support your children during a divorce or separation. However, there are steps you can take as their parents to minimize their emotional turmoil.
The First Year
Unsurprisingly, the first year following the divorce is usually the hardest for children. The emotional trauma is fresh. They need to adjust to new custody arrangements. They may feel uprooted, frustrated, and overwhelmed.
It’s during the first year that the stages of grief are most potently experienced: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Some children experience more of one stage than others; they may entirely skip certain stages, revert between stages, and they don’t necessarily manifest in that order. Unfortunately, there is no clear road map to acceptance and there’s no guarantee it will be achieved.
While the first year is likely the toughest for you too, this is the most crucial time for you to be present and supportive of your children. How you interact with them and your ex-spouse during the first year of separation has a big influence on how they integrate the change into their own lives.
Divorce at Different Stages of Development
Different age groups have varying reactions to divorce. Every child is unique, however, and every situation is different. The personality of the child and the state of the marriage pre-divorce are significant contributing factors.
Younger children tend to feel confused and insecure as they don’t fully understand why their home is changing so drastically. If you’re sharing custody, the back-and-forth between houses may be distressing for them. They’ve likely never considered the possibility of their family not being together and may fear their own abandonment.
Elementary school children commonly internalize their feelings and blame themselves for the separation, worrying that they did something to cause it.
Teenagers may become resentful and angry with you and your ex. While they have a greater ability to think abstractly and understand the concept, adolescence is a tumultuous stage of development fraught with emotional and physical changes. They may blame one parent more than the other or act out in rebellious ways.
Potential Difficulties for Children
There are a few common pitfalls for a child of divorce. It is important to acknowledge that no matter how much you love them, you can’t protect them from every emotional obstacle. You can only support them as best you can.
- Mental health: Children of divorce are unsurprisingly at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety during and after the separation.
- Academic disturbance: It is normal for children to lose focus at school during times of great upheaval. Fortunately, many schools are cognizant and understanding of this.
- Behavioral issues: Children may act out in myriad ways during a separation. They may take greater risks and challenge your authority.
How Can You Support Them?
The way you respond to your circumstances can greatly assist your children in dealing with the changes themselves. Every child is different, but there are a few simple steps you can take as individuals and as parents to help your children feel as secure and supported as possible.
- Present a united front: It’s normal for you and your ex to disagree on certain issues, especially concerning your children. However, it is important to keep the conflict private. Loud fights, public arguments, and hostility between parents increase the stress of the separation for them.
- Be consistent: Your children will undergo several significant changes during the course of your separation. Big upheavals may make them feel insecure and unsafe. It’s therefore vital to stay as consistent as possible in any way you can manage. Try to keep mealtimes the same, have a set bedtime routine and stick to a schedule to add an element of familiarity to every day. Introduce any big changes slowly and remind them they are still loved and cared for.
- Be honest: Explaining the intricacies of a divorce or separation to a child is no easy task. They needn’t know the intricate details of your marital problems, but they’re entitled to the truth. While it may feel easier and less scary to soften the blow with white lies, they will have to deal with the reality eventually, and it’s better coming from you.
- Don’t blame your ex: It can be difficult to see your situation clearly during the worst parts, and the temptation to blame your ex may be strong. Whatever your personal feelings may be, bad-mouthing or blaming your ex in front of your kids will only make matters more confusing and stressful for them.
- Think about your answers beforehand: There will probably be several difficult conversations to have with your children during and after the separation. They may ask open-ended questions like, “Why is this happening?” These conversations can be made easier by planning appropriate answers that don’t lay blame or go into too much detail while remaining truthful.
- Consult professionals: A divorce is a traumatic time for all involved. Having access to therapy and counseling during the process may go a long way toward mitigating long-term complications. Therapists can help your children develop healthy coping mechanisms and express their feelings in healthy ways.
- Be open about big changes: While it may be hard to tell them what is changing, it will be easier for them if they’re prepared for changes in living arrangements, transport, and parental responsibilities. Being more open with your child can have a positive effect of potentially encouraging them to be more open with you.
- Listen: Your child will grieve the divorce just as you are — but differently. Having someone they can trust with whom to share their feelings and experiences can help them process their grief more effectively. Acknowledge and validate their feelings when they’re shared and help them vocalize complicated emotions.
- Look after yourself: You are their safe harbor during a tumultuous time. The more stable and self-aware you are, the easier it will be to provide them with the necessary support.
In time, the adjustments that come with divorce will lessen. But it’s still imperative that you support your child every step of the way, whether alone or with the help of a counselor. When they know your love for them hasn’t changed, they’ll likely find it easier to feel stable emotionally and to thrive in their new home environment.