Although a divorce or separation happens between two people, its effects can be felt by the whole family. As your children cope with the change and various emotions, there are many ways you can support them. Remember, research shows that most children are resilient and cope well following divorce.
How Will My Kids Respond?
Kids often worry when they learn that their parents are getting a separation or divorce. They may feel afraid, confused, sad, angry or resentful. For children who may have witnessed a lot of fighting, they may feel some relief as well.
Children may also feel guilty about a separation or divorce. This is because children may blame themselves for your breakup, unaware of relationship dynamics that are out of their control.
All their emotions are valid and normal. You should also expect some changes in behavior in the first year of separation as they adjust to the changes. You may also see some of the emotions and behaviors resurface around events like holidays and birthdays.
What Can I Do to Help the Transition Go Better?
Explain at their developmental level. Older children will likely already know what separation or divorce means. For younger children, however, you may have to explain things like “we do not feel happy when we are together anymore, but we both still love you very much.” Let your children know that they aren’t responsible for the end of your relationship. This may help to relieve misplaced feelings of guilt. Children may ask you why you are separating. While honesty is important in this conversation, children do not have to know the details. Consider how much you want to share about the reasons for the separation versus what should be kept private.
Talk about it. Check in with your children often during and after the separation. Ask them if they have any questions, what they’re thinking, and how they feel. Let them know that you can handle hearing what they have to say to allow them to open up, instead of feeling worried about hurting your feelings. When they do share, remember to validate their emotions. We have more information about how to have difficult conversations here.
- Answer their questions. If your child is asking you about something, it’s because they’re already thinking about it. Answer their questions at their developmental level but honestly. You can be brief in your answers and if they have a follow-up question, that indicates they’re ready to hear more.
- Find support from others. If you notice your child is having a hard time opening up to you, think about other adults in their lives they may trust. We know support networks are one of the best things to help children through difficult life changes. Help them connect to an adult in the family, community, or school they can trust and be open with.
Don’t put the child in the middle. Although this process may be difficult for you, remember to keep your children’s best interests in mind. Don’t expose children to arguments or conflict. Similarly, if you have negative thoughts about your former partner, don’t share them with your children. When possible, it’s better for children to preserve relationships with both parents, instead of feeling pressured to take sides.
Aim for stability. Continue as many of your children’s daily and weekly routines as possible, from homework help to game nights and bedtime story time. Try to keep the same schedule and routines between both households. If your children experience fewer disruptions during a divorce or separation transition period, it may help them recognize that some things can stay the same, even when there are changes.
- Create a calendar. Children benefit from knowing what to expect. Having a visual calendar with expected visitation days or indicating what days they will be at each home is helpful. You can also include fun family activities on this calendar so they have something to look forward to.
Seek therapy as needed. While it’s expected that most children will have a hard time initially, some children may show signs that persist over time. If the following signs persist and begin to cause impairment, therapy may be helpful: difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, accidents after being potty trained, a change in academic performance, decreased interest in things, bursts of anger, social isolation, or new, aggressive or risky behaviors.