How To Help Your Kids Survive Divorce: A Child Psychologist Explains
At its most benign, a divorce is a disappointing end to a relationship. At its worst, divorce can be a devastating life transition for all involved.
Separating parents often worry, appropriately so, about how their children might be negatively affected. But let me emphasize one thing first: Extensive research has shown that most children have no significant difficulties after a divorce. And for those kids who do experience emotional or behavioral issues, the problems tend to resolve themselves quickly.
Plus, it's important to note that some children might even benefit from their parents’ divorce — especially if the marriage was full of conflict and the divorce provides some relief.
Bottom line: Your children will likely not be harmed by the split.
But as a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, I also know that many moms and dads going through a divorce are looking for ways to help make sure their kids get through the transition happy and healthy. Here's what I recommend:
1. Practice self-care throughout the divorce.
For adults, divorce can be one of the most stressful life events. Some research finds it's second only to the death of a spouse. But stressed-out parents who aren’t attending to their own needs are less equipped to respond to difficulties their children might be going through. Think of the airplane safety demonstration in which flight attendants instruct adult passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before assisting children. The same goes for parenting.
Everyone’s version of self-care is a little different, but there are a few core strategies that work for most people. One, spend time with people who care about you. Two, make sure you’re taking care of your body’s needs with adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Finally, engage regularly in activities that make you happy.
2. Start an ongoing conversation and emphasize three main points.
During the first conversation you have with your kids, you should communicate in an age-appropriate way key details about the divorce and the logistics of custody (if they’re known yet).
More importantly, you want to make sure your children know that a) the divorce is not their fault, b) the responsibility for the divorce is on both parents, and c) both parents still love them and will continue to be a big part of their lives.
But remember that this is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation you should be having. Children process information differently and at different speeds. Don’t be surprised if there are no questions during the “big talk” and then many questions and comments that pop up in the ensuing months at seemingly random times.
Let kids go at their own speed, and take these opportunities to answer their questions, address their concerns, and let them know that the door is always open for more discussion.
3. Validate kids’ feelings without feeling that you have to fix them.
We’ve all had that friend who immediately jumps to problem-solving mode when we tell them about difficulties we’re experiencing. Just like adults, sometimes children just want you to listen.
When children come to you saying they’re sad or angry about the divorce, reflect their feelings back to them with understanding statements such as, “I can understand why you’d be sad; you’re not getting to spend as much time with your dad as when we all lived together.” Sometimes, that’s the best you can offer because there isn't always a solution.
The "fixing" reflex often comes from our own discomfort with our kids’ distress, or may even come from feeling guilty about the divorce. But just allowing children to talk about difficult emotions helps them build coping skills and sends the message that those emotions are okay and don’t need to be fixed.
4. Keep routines as consistent as possible.
A divorce can add to a child’s feeling of instability and uncertainty. That's why it’s important to try to keep as many of the other aspects of a child’s life constant and in order.
It's especially important for kids to maintain connections with their usual friend groups or teams, because social support is a huge buffer against stress.
Of course, it's not always possible to keep things the same — the divorce might mean moving to a different house or school district. If that’s the case, try to put new routines into place as quickly as you can to help your kids feel more grounded.
5. Don't let your kids hear you fight or critizie the other parent.
Exposure to parental conflict is bad for children. If the divorce gives the kids a break from that conflict, they'll likely fare better overall. However, continued exposure to fighting after a divorce can lead to negative outcomes. So do everything in your power not to speak badly about the other parent, even if you feel they aren’t doing the same.
This includes avoiding passive-aggressive comments such as, “I'd know if you can spend the night at your friend’s house if your father would just pick up his phone!” Kids are perceptive and can pick up the hostility, even if you think you’re hiding it well.
The most important outcome of a divorce is not the visitation schedule or the amount of child support, it’s how well you can co-parent with your ex. Keep this in mind and do everything you can to make sure your children don’t feel they have to pick a side.