Caring for your child through divorce

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As soon as parents announce that they are about to be separated or divorced, the natural reaction of young children and teenagers is to immediately blame themselves.

I quite commonly have parents telling me that their child is,

‘doing just fine’ 
‘it hasn’t affected the kids much at all’ 
‘the children have just bounced back so quickly’

However, the reason why many parents have this perception is not because they are bad parents, but because their children know that one or both parents are hurting badly too (even if the divorce has come as a relief after an abusive relationship). Children will often fail to be completely open about their pain for fear of hurting or worrying mum and dad further.

What is happening inside my child’s head?

Your children will be going through a period of grief, much like after a death. This is due to their sense of trust being shaken. Children need time to process the changes and the ending of something they have known as being ‘life’ for them up to this point.

If the marriage had been fractious or even abusive for some time, teens will be torn between feelings of relief at the immediate end to daily tension, yet misery that they will no longer see one of their parents every day. A teenager may also feel guilty about this sense of relief.

Young children can become temporarily more dependent and regressive in behaviour, while adolescents may become more insecure, depressed, withdrawn or even aggressive in response to the change.

Aggression may be aimed at a parent or sibling. Alternatively, behavior change may come up at school towards peers, teachers or in schoolwork. This can manifest in withdrawal from friends and teachers, rebellious behavior and schoolwork either deteriorating or developing into obsessiveness.

Is there a “right way” to break the news of a divorce?

  1. Try to have both parents present (where safely possible).
  2. Emphasize to the children that it is not their fault.
  3. Don’t use it as a time to criticize your ex and ‘tell all’ to your teenager.
  4. Acknowledge that they will feel fear or sadness and so on.
  5. Be prepared for their questions beforehand: Discuss issues around living arrangements, schooling, sport and visitation.
  6. Keep your differences out of this conversation. Maintain the children’s feelings as foremost in your mind.

What are the most important things parents can do to help their kids after a break up?

  1. Don’t fight in front of the kids. This is very traumatic, even for teenagers to witness, every time parents do a hand over.
  2. Don’t speak badly of your ex partner in front of your teen. Remember that they are still your child’s parent and there is a bond there, even if one parent is genuinely not pulling their weight. Teenagers only begin to resent the parent that is doing the bad mouthing. As children grow older, they will see things clearly for themselves.
  3. Don’t use the children as a bargaining tool. Children resent being in the middle and being asked to choose. It is an impossible choice and causes incredible stress.
  4. Don’t try to buy your teenager’s love or ‘win’ your child’s favour. This always backfires.
  5. Get them to a counsellor fairly quickly. This is an imperative step. Teenagers then have an unbiased third party, where they can freely discuss their feelings and explore other healing counselling techniques.



What should parents say to a child who dreams that mum and dad will get back together again?

This almost always happens for both teens and young children as they try to come to terms with the permanence of the situation.

Older children and teens will ‘talk the other parent up’, plan romantic get-togethers, think of ways they could break up new dates and may often fantasize about doing ‘family things’ that will get the parents back together. I have personally heard these from many of the children that I chat with.

Some may try to help out around the house more or try to be a ‘good girl’ so that daddy will come back.

This will be different for every child and teenager so I always ask the ‘magic wand’ question.

“If I could wave a magic wand and make things better, what would you change? The only thing I can’t change is mum and dad getting back together.”

Children are incredibly realistic with this. (I have never had a client say, “I wish for a million dollars.”) The answers they come up with can present a pretty clear idea of what is troubling the child at the time

For example, “I would spend more time with dad” or “I would make all my schoolbooks be at both houses.”

This also indicates where parents can take practical steps to make changes.

Adjusting to new living arrangements can be tricky – how is that best handled?

Follow the 3 R’s:

  • Routine – Get a new routine going as quickly as possible. Routine always creates a sense of security for children and will help them settle.
  • Rituals – Try to keep up with friends and activities that your teen is familiar with. Keep other changes to a minimum for as long as possible. I.e. Don’t immediately change schools if you can, as living and relationship changes need adjusting to first. This can help children to maintain a feeling of control in some areas of their lives.
  • Reassurance – Continue to do this often over the next months. Children need to know that mum and dad are not going to ‘divorce’ them and that the parents are as lovingly connected to their children as ever.

In everything that involves this very adult decision, please do your best to keep your children’s wellbeing as first and foremost. Please also look after yourself. If you don’t have a good support network please seriously consider seeing a counsellor.

My interview on The Morning Show discussing how everyday parents can help children to cope through a divorce:

I would like to thank all the parents who shared on my Facebook wall or emailed me with their experiences. I so appreciate your openness and willingness to assist other families through this painful time.
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