Divorce, a reality for many couples, can be particularly difficult for children. Once parents break the news, it’s important to keep it simple with younger kids as they typically only want to know the basics—what the divorce means, that it isn’t their fault, and where they will live once things are finalized. High parental conflict can be damaging to any child, so it’s vital to set boundaries and shield them from heated arguments. Above all, maintaining a sense of calm is one of the best ways to provide a loving foundation when a child’s world becomes jumbled through a parental split.
Creating a new normal
“It’s common for family members to display a wide variety of emotions during a divorce, including sadness, fear, anxiety and even relief,” says Lori Christman, administrative court counselor at the Lucas County Common Pleas Court, Domestic Relations Division. “We find that children can do well with divorce. Our county requires parents of minors to participate in the Assisting Our Kids (A OK) Program which teaches do’s and don’ts for helping children through the process.”
Christman’s main goal is to support parents in presenting a united front whenever possible, especially when they aren’t feeling united. She also encourages moms and dads to seek counseling to help deal with the ongoing process of separation and to create a “new normal.”
Supporting your child
While younger children may be more likely to express their emotions during a divorce, older kids often pretend that everything is alright. “Many times they don’t want to talk about it,” says Joan Freeman, a family therapist. “It’s appropriate to let teachers and caregivers know general information about the divorce and custody arrangements. If a child is older, parents should ask if he/she wants to tell their coaches or friends’ parents.”
Freeman stresses that often younger children need to be reassured that they are loved by both parents, even though they all no longer live together. It’s important to be consistent with communication for tweens and teens. Moms and dads should use the same language to avoid confusion and set similar expectations for behavior in both households. In all situations, it’s vital for parents to speak to each other directly, not through their children.
While it’s normal for little ones to express sadness, older children may not want to talk about the divorce. Keeping lines of communication open encourages healthy expression of emotions. If parents notice their child becomes more aggressive or withdrawn, Freeman provides knowledgeable support in navigating the complicated process of divorce. “The most important thing parents can do is be present for their kids,” she says.
Divorce is a major life event; however, if parents can find a way to communicate civilly, the original family unit can continue to be a source of stability. Christman offers an essential reminder: “Parents are role models in everything, including the divorce. With time and consistent effort, the family can get through it and be alright.”