Helping Children Deal With Divorce: A Guide For Parents
How can you help your kids cope with a divorce?
Helping children deal with divorce is as difficult as the divorce itself. I don’t know how it feels like, and I can’t pretend that I do. But I know of people who live with the fear that one day their parents will separate, because they feel the thin ice that their parents' relationship stands on, cracking and straining to keep their marriage and the children afloat.
But once parents separate, how do you tell a child that it will be alright? How do you tell parents how to tell their children that it will be alright?
It seems like a tall order. I am in no place to tell them it will be alright. So I posted a question that addressed nobody and everybody: Did your parents separate? If they did, what did people (your parents included) do or say to comfort you? What worked and what did not?
The responses were overwhelming. They were honest, heartbreaking, and inspiring. They were testaments to the strength of children and the problems within our society. So here’s what you can do in helping children deal with divorce, and what you can’t.
This is helping children deal with divorce
If the other party is still willing to be a parent to your children, coordinate with them on how to become a functional and united front in raising your child. As a child, being passed around by disagreeing parents can make them feel unwanted.
So you have to make sure that the both of you are still people that your child can rely on. That will be comforting for them. Be a good support system. Tell them it’s normal for people to grow and live apart but still share the same goals--like raising a child.
2. Share their hobbies
Children will get into hobbies to cope. They will withdraw. Whatever they’re into, it helps if you enjoy it with them and become invested/interested in what they’re interested in. A friend said she enjoyed cooking with her mom, and that helped her deal with the separation.
Talking to kids about what interests them helps, she also said. Not just ranting about life or work or about how it would be better if the other parent was there.
You don’t have to say anything. Don’t pretend to know how it feels. You don’t. Their feelings and your feelings are different. So listen, and listen closely. Just listen. Be there for them.
4. Lead by example
A significant improvement in the parent without the other can rub off on the kids. Though this might not apply to all, a visibly happier and more active parent post-divorce does comfort some children concerned about their parents’ well-being.
5. Take the weight off their shoulders
The eldest child will often feel undue pressure to become a surrogate parent to their other siblings because one parent is gone. So ease their burden. Let them be children and remind them to have sibling time apart from teaching time.
6. Tell your kids it’s not their fault
Children might sometimes feel they’re the reason for the separation. So tell them, gently, that it’s not their fault.
7. Teach them the value of individuality
Build your child’s confidence and sense of self. It’s important for your kids to know that you and your partner were once separate people, that both of you were once somebody else’s kids. We each have our own story and sometimes, they don’t all converge. You have your own story. Your child has his/her own story. Tell them this.
It’s also important for them to know that it’s normal for people to fall in love, stay together, and sometimes leave each other. Relationships don’t always work out, and teaching them to be open to that possibility can help them approach relationships that are not codependent or hurtful.
We can’t stress this enough. Communication isn’t just about talking, but also listening. Be aware of each other’s needs and acknowledging what happened helps everyone move on. The sooner someone does, the better.
9. Friends can help
Don’t be afraid of letting them go off on their own. This is part of their learning the importance of individuality. Solitude is okay. They need space to breath.
They will need friends, peers who understand them at the same level. If you can, provide an avenue for your children to have friends over at your place. Creating a sense of belonging for your child helps them in the long run.
This is not helping children deal with divorce
Avoid fostering a cynical attitude. This might only make your kids think that the same thing can happen to them, that your problems can be passed on. So assure them that in spite of your situation, it is still possible to find a healthy relationship where both partners are caring and supportive.
2. Saying “please understand”
Try not to tell your child to “understand” you and what the both of you are going through. Telling them does not automatically make them understand (the gap in your ages makes this apparent). Don’t put undue burden on them by telling them what not to feel. Trying to make them “understand” would not make them feel better.
This has the unintended effect of invalidating their feelings, that what they’re going through isn’t worthy of attention or acknowledgement. Allow them to feel what they’re feeling. This encourages honest and open communication between you and your children.
There’s already a lot of pain in the process. Separation may be the right decision but it will always have an impact on your child, whether they tell it to you or not. So help them process their feelings.
3. Trying to get back together/patching things up with the ex
Tell your kids, gently and carefully, that you two are not getting back together. Whether you’re a parent or a relative/friend of another separating couple, do not encourage parents to go back together. Better yet, don’t tell kids your assumption that everything will be fine and things will go back to the way they were. It's all about managing expectations.
4. Lying and hiding it
Some couples do hide their separation from their kids. So don’t do it. It’s not wise to act like nothing has changed, that everything is fine when everything isn’t. Tell the truth, don’t hide it. Don’t lie (even by omission). If they find out, your children would just resent you for lying/never telling them in the first place.
5. Badmouthing the other parent
Your feelings or thoughts aren’t the children’s responsibility. Let them decide this for themselves. Blaming or demonizing the other parent after divorce/separation is like having a burning house spread its flames to the surrounding area, instead of putting the fire out. It’s not helping.
6. Blaming it on religion (or lack thereof)
Religion has nothing to do with the divorce/separation, and it certainly has nothing to do with helping children deal with divorce. This is an opinion that your children might not share. Again, it doesn’t help.
In helping children deal with divorce, the last thing you want to do is to make them feel worse. According to philosophy professor Aaron Ben Zheev, Ph.D.:
“...Compassion involves far greater commitment for substantial help. Compassion involves willingness to become personally involved, while pity usually does not. Pity is more spectator-like than compassion; we can pity people while maintaining a safe emotional distance from them. While pity involves the belief in the inferiority of the object, compassion assumes equality in common humanity.”
8. Your happiness does not depend on your children
Your well-being and happiness are your responsibility. Do not dump this responsibility on your children as they are already dealing with too much for their age to handle this. If you can handle yourself, helping children deal with divorce becomes easier. Your children will take comfort in any improvement in the situation—they'll even feel happy for you.
9. Do not break their trust
Sometimes, kids will try to keep their thoughts to themselves for fear of reprisal or that they might make everything worse. So sometimes it's best to encourage them to go to counseling. But remember, respect the patient-doctor confidentiality.
Don't ask the counselor about the details of the sessions. If the counselor themselves goes to you to try and tell you about the sessions, say no.
The last thing that your child needs is to have another person break her trust. It's a traumatic experience that makes children unable to trust adults (or anybody) in the future.
10. Don’t fight in front of your kids
Do you remember the times you saw your parents fought? How does it make you feel? Remember that your children will remember your fights, consciously or unconsciously, and this will have a negative impact on their well-being later on.
If your parents’ fight can affect you, your fights will affect your children, too. In helping children deal with divorce, try to control your emotions in front of your kids and take the argument somewhere private.
“Some things in life cannot be fixed, only carried.”
Divorce is never easy. But it doesn't have to be too difficult for your children either. This can be a chance for them to learn more about the hard lessons in life, and a significant step forward in growing up to become the adults we strive to become.