Helping Your Children With the Stress of Divorce

When you have kids, the decision to divorce brings a host of heart-wrenching concerns. Each phase of youth, from babyhood to adolescence and from teenage years to college, has its own requirements for healthy development. Steering children through these important times in life is challenging under normal circumstances, but divorcing parents know that the additional life changes divorce brings will require special parental attention and guidance.

What We Know

When it comes to shepherding your kids through a divorce, the experts largely agree on a few major points:

  • Take care of yourself first. In order to care sufficiently for your kids at this incredibly difficult time, you need to be sure you are coming from a healthy place. This may mean seeing a counselor or therapist to help ease the stress of the transition from married to single life. Staying healthy through exercise, eating well, staying engaged with friends and extended family, meditation or prayer according to your beliefs can also be helpful. Your children will observe your self-preservation and be reassured that you are strong and steady despite the change whirling around all of you.
  • Be sure the kids know it's not their fault. Kids may blame themselves for the marital breakup. Telling them once it isn't true may not be enough; be sure they really hear you.
  • Don't trash talk your ex. As hard as it may be, try to speak about the children's other parent with respect, or at least in neutral terms. The children are not the appropriate people to air your grievances to. This puts them in the middle and makes them feel like they need to take sides.
  • Routine, routine, routine. To help kids feel more secure, try to lessen change and maintain as much consistency as possible in your children's lives. If you can postpone moving to a new residence, wait. If you can keep them in their school, do so. If major changes have to be made right away, try to keep it as routine as possible at home with set schedules for homework, meals and activities. On a related note, do not stop disciplining them or enforcing family rules; they still need to know there are structure and limits in place.
  • Kids need both parents. As hard as it can be in some relationships, especially when one parent behaved badly during the marriage, as long as there is no threat of violence or abuse, it is well known that it is better for children to maintain relationships with both of their parents after a divorce. Try to communicate meaningfully with your former partner about the kids and maintain consistent rules and discipline between the two households.
  • Honesty is really the best policy. Try to make your children understand that it is safe to tell you the truth about how they are feeling. Be sure they know you are there to listen and provide advice and comfort, even if what they have to say may sometimes be hurtful to you personally. As a parent, you should also tell them the truth in response to difficult questions, keeping in mind their ages and ability to understand or process certain things. This doesn't mean they need to hear all the gory details, somewhat simplified or general answers are fine, but avoid lies.
  • Get professional help for the kids if needed. Despite your best efforts, if your son or daughter does not seem to be adjusting over time or exhibits behavior of concern, talk to his or her pediatrician or doctor or seek the assistance of a mental health professional.
  • Express your affection for them. Don't forget to reassure your kids often of your love, both verbally and with physical affection.

In the Long Run

At the time of a divorce, you may worry that your children will never be the same when you see their sadness, fear, loss, anger or whatever other negative emotions they express. But research shows that in the long run, most kids will survive divorce and come out on the other side stronger, more flexible, more resilient people.

In the grand scheme, workable post-divorce arrangements can help everyone move on in a healthy way. To that end, consult with an experienced family law attorney to understand your options for child custody and visitation so that you can set up the best arrangements possible for your children under the circumstances.