Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Eight Ways To Help Children Cope With Divorce

December 6, 2004

Parents who are getting a divorce are often preoccupied with their own problems, but are and will continue to be the most important people in their children's lives.

Parents can help children deal constructively with the resolution of their divorce and conflict. They need to be alert for signs of distress in their child or children. They need to gain information on typical adjustment challenges children face, depending on their age and gender.

Overall adjustment to divorce is related to post-divorce adjustments of the custodial parent, post-divorce conflict between parents, and to the quality of the parent/child relationships. Other issues include financial stress, relocation, complications connected with visitation, parental dating and remarriage.

Seven tips for helping children of divorce

1. Explain the divorce as honestly as you can. Do not keep it a secret or wait until the last minute.

If possible, both parents should tell their children together. Reassure them that they are not responsible. Let them know that you as parents are divorcing each other and not them. Let them know each of you will continue to love and take care of them.

Keep things simple and straight-forward. Avoid unnecessary details. Children want to understand why it happened. Encourage them to ask questions. Describe the reasons for the divorce and ongoing conflict in ways that don't tear down the other parent's character.

2. Accept your children's feelings of loss. Encourage them to talk about what they are going through. Open communication will help them deal with their sadness, anger or confusion. Admit that this will be sad and upsetting for everyone.

Perhaps the single most difficult task for many children is to grieve and assimilate the departure and partial loss of the non-custodial parent. Accept their feelings of sadness and loss. Much of the adjustment to loss comes with time and with enjoyment of the new family lifestyle.

Listen to what they say and watch what they do. Get them to talk. Draw out their worst fears and fantasies and reassure them that their imagined consequences of divorce are unlikely to occur.

3. Keep your promises. By consistently keeping your promises, you let your children know that they can trust you. It is tempting for divorcing parents to make unrealistic promises out of guilt. If you've made a promise and realize later you are unable to keep it, acknowledge it to your child.

4. Keep the conflict between yourselves. Children are greatly affected when they are used as pawns, weapons, spies and messengers between parents. With some exceptions, children do much better with positive relationships and involvement with both parents.

Your children's love for the other parent doesn't take away from their love for you. Let them know it is OK to love both parents. Don't compete for your children's love.

Don't make them prove their loyalty to you by rejecting their other parent. Don't make them choose sides in disputes you have with your spouse.

Don't criticize, put down or demean the other parent. Do not discuss each other’s faults or problems with the child.

Children need quality time with both parents. Don’t restrict access to one of their parents, no matter how willing the children may seem at the time. Don’t inquire or show curiosity about the time they spent with the other parent.

Don't argue or fight with your spouse while the child is listening. Be careful of phone calls that can be overheard. The amount of conflict child witnesses during and immediately after divorce is a crucial factor in his or her adjustment.

5. Keep a regular routine. Have meals together, regular bedtimes, consistent rules and predictable schedules. Consistent discipline and routine create feelings of safety.

Maintain relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends. Keep them in the same school and home if possible.

Tell them about changes that you expect to happen. Prepare them for new jobs, moves, dating, school and other changes.

6. Let you child continue to be a child. A major task for children is to resume their normal pursuits with the appropriate pleasure and interests, despite their worries about the crisis at home. Encourage friendships, clubs, activities and hobbies that will give them pleasure and develop their abilities.

Don't make them into little adults by giving them too many responsibilities or by making them confidants about adult problems and worries. Be careful about delegating too much child-care responsibility to older children. Don’t involve adolescents or young adults as confidants on dating or life adjustment problems.

7. Take care of yourself. Your own happiness and coping skills have a strong impact on how well your children will do. Build your own support system of trusted friends, family and support groups. Reach out to clergy and mental health professionals for additional support if needed. Read about divorce and the changes you are going through.

Don’t be so busy dealing with everyone else's pain that you forget to get help for yourself. Sometimes children of divorcing parents act out their anger or are fearful. Seeking out a professional counselor or therapist who can help them find more constructive ways of expressing their feelings.

8. Expose them to new models of positive relationships. Expose your children to models and mentors outside of the family for support and encouragement. Help them understand how relationships can work with love, acceptance, mutual understanding, and constancy.