Helping Children through Divorce

By Noelle Castoro, MSW


When a marriage ends there is almost always a good deal of fear surrounding the future.  The children if there are any, finances, and our new identity as a non-married or divorced person are often at the top of the list of worries.  Divorce causes feelings of profound loss and disruption in many areas of life.  Fear of what is to come is normal and may be the only part of divorce that is to be expected.  Stress, anger, and depression can all be part of the process.  And this is just for the adults coping with divorce.  What about the children?


We often hear the phrase, “children are resilient,” which is meant to be comforting when we know we have put our kids in a difficult situation.  Many children are, in fact, resilient, but to what extent and how can it be measured?  The short, and disappointing answer is that it really can’t be measured and depends on many variables.  What parents can do is to try to create the best possible outcome for their children as the family navigates its way as best they can.


The truth is that divorce is difficult for children and most will struggle with the experience of their parents splitting up, at least temporarily.  Some will have long term difficulties in behavior, emotional health, or academically.  People often want to know if there is an age a child will be better equipped to handle divorce to avoid potential problems.  Unfortunately, children of all ages are affected by divorce, and there is no “best” age.  The good news though, is that research has shown that there are ways to reduce the negative impact of divorce on children, decreasing the chance of long-term difficulties.


Some steps to help children through divorce:


1. Cooperation and communication between parents


This is the number one predictor of how well a child will fare though divorce.  Children who suffer the most long-term effects of divorce emotionally or behaviorally are often the children exposed to the most parental conflict before, during, and after divorce.  And while children are sensitive to conflict, they are also respond favorably to effective conflict resolution.  Finding effective ways to cooperate and communicate with your ex will provide a better outcome for your children.  And if an argument does happen, let your children see that it was resolved.  Also, as the adults in the family, it is your job to communicate with each other rather than use the children to deliver messages back and forth.


2. Let them be children, not your confidante


Your children love you.  And they love your ex.  Loyalty conflicts arise for children when one parent disparages the other in conversation with the child.  Because they love you, they want to listen and be supportive of your feelings, and they feel this same way for your ex.  When one parent talks about the other, the child experiences it as the parent asking the child to take sides.  Imagine if both parents do this.  Then the child feels pulled to one parent, then the other.    Loyalty conflicts can cause anxiety, depression, and feelings of guilt and resentment.


Sometimes asking the child to take sides is explicit.  Most often, however, it is more subtle, and the parent may not even realize he or she is doing it.  Telling the children about arguments and saying such things as, “can you believe Mom did this or that?”  Mumbling negative things under your breath, telling the child how much the parent hurt you, are also examples of behaviors that can lead to loyalty conflict.


Try to keep in mind, too, that your children are an equal combination of both parents.  They feel the connection to their mother and father, and insulting one parent can be experienced by the child as insulting part of them.  


3. Talk to your children about their feelings


Through the process of separation and divorce it is common for parents to become so wrapped up in their own pain and grief that they find it too difficult or even forget to check in with their kids and their feelings. Divorce is hard, and it is often a sad and lonely time when the future feels uncertain.  If that is true for the couple, consider what those feelings might be like for a child.


Ask your child how they are feeling.  Some children may have trouble understanding their feelings or finding the words for them.  Some children respond better to the question, “What do you think?” rather than “What do you feel,” so try that, too. 


Be patient.  Be present.  Acknowledge their grief.  At the heart of divorce is loss, and children, just like their parents, feel the loss deeply.  Reassuring them that you are there for them when they need you will go a long way in helping them work through their experience of a changing family.


4. Seek Help


Sometimes the process of divorce feels too much to manage.  If you are going through a divorce and you or your children are struggling, therapy can help you navigate through the uncertainty of change.  You don’t have to go through it alone.