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Discussing divorce with kids
May 18, 2022
Girl looking sad with parents arguing in the background

    Discussing divorce with kids

    The decision to divorce is rarely an easy one. It involves heartbreak and change – not just for you as a couple, but for the whole family. Psychologist Dr. Michele Cosby shares some ways parents can make the process a little easier for kids.

    Sharing the news of divorce

    Children react differently to learning their parents plan to divorce. Make sharing the news as comforting as possible by:

    • Reminding them you love them and emphasizing this is not their fault.
    • Talking to your child together, if possible. Agree in advance how you’ll explain the reason for the divorce in a truthful, age-appropriate way. Younger kids will need less detail than teens.
    • Remaining respectful. Avoid blaming or speaking ill of the other parent with or near your child.
    • Acknowledging that “this won’t be easy, but it will be okay.”
    • Sharing logistical information, such as living arrangements and upcoming changes to daily routines. Avoid overwhelming them with too many specifics immediately. Kids thrive on structure and theirs is about to change.

    Offering support for kids amidst divorce

    The emotional impact of divorce varies based on the age, developmental stage and unique personality of each child. Young children may not understand why they’ll have two homes or worry parents may stop loving them like they stopped loving each other. Grade school age children may worry the divorce is their fault because they misbehaved or did something wrong. Teens may become angry at the changes, blaming or resenting one or both parents for disrupting the family system.

    The specific family situation can also factor into kids’ emotional responses to the news. Divorce may actually result in relief if it means less chaos, tension and stress in the home. 

    No matter the circumstances, you can show your child support by:

    • Asking questions, listening and allowing them to share how they’re feeling without judgment.
    • Expressing warmth and giving as many hugs and kisses as they’ll tolerate.
    • Helping them feel safe and secure. Divorce can fuel fear of abandonment which can lead to anxiety. The more this attended to, the less likely the concern is to be present.
    • Empowering them. Help them build resilience by recognizing their strengths and ability to cope in difficult situations.
    • Monitoring adolescents more closely. They may show signs of distress, but not put it into words.
    • Teaching and modeling healthy coping skills such as problem solving, and managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors in a productive way.
    • Using consistent discipline by developing age-appropriate rules and following through with consequences.
    • Not putting them in the middle.
    • Co-parenting peacefully. The more conflict, the more distress for everyone involved – especially the child. Keep working on an amicable relationship.

    Think about the ways your child has handled other stressors in their life to help in planning for the best support.

    Remembering it’s a process

    Father braiding daughter's hairThe first year after divorce is often the toughest as everyone is acclimating to new routines, living arrangements and experiences. Holidays, birthdays and vacations will be different from the way they were before. Seeing parents adjust to single life or new partners, the possibility of new marriages and step siblings will require additional adaptations eventually.

    A small percentage of kids experience anger and anxiety longer term following divorce. In this case, a mental health professional can help with coping skills and acceptance. There's no shame in seeking advice from a therapist (your own or your child's) and even keeping school teachers or other important adults in your child's life informed. Although it’s a process, most kids adjust well and have happy, healthy childhoods following divorce.

    Find more articles and information about supporting kids’ mental health.

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