Divorce is not an easy thing for families to handle. It creates a major disruption for everyone, but is especially tough for kids, because they have no control over the situation.
“Going through a divorce can often be an emotional and confusing time, and unfortunately, children can become bargaining chips or pawns against our better judgment,” says Elaine Ducharme, PhD, a divorce coach and child specialist with the Connecticut Collaborative Divorce Group (CCDG) based in Hartford.
“Working out the details of a split can be messy, which means we can’t take our eye off of how our children are handling the situation.”
But parents can take steps to help children adjust. Here are 9 ideas.
1. Tell the kids what’s going on
Many parents worry about talking to children about an impending break-up, but several studies say it’s best to tell them right away — and the announcement should come from both parents at the same time.
Use simple, straightforward language, and skip details that would cause more stress or strife.
2. Don’t encourage false hope
While it’s easier to offer soothing lies to kids when they’re upset, explain your breakup in simple, truthful language. Moms and dads need to make it clear that getting back together is not possible.
3. Choose your words wisely
When asked why you’re splitting up, try not to tell young children, “We don’t love each other anymore.” Kids might then be worried that they, too, could lose their parents’ love.
4. Put your kids first
“Parental decisions about divorce can affect and scar children — for years — and often for a lifetime,” says Rosalind Sedacca, Divorce & Parenting Coach and founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network.
“We want to tell divorcing parents: Regardless of your own emotional state, it is essential to put your children’s needs first when making decisions related to divorce or separation.”
Remind children it is not their fault, and always love your children more than you dislike each other.
5. Never put children in the middle
Eight things parents shouldn’t do
Don’t argue in front of your kids.
Don’t blame the other parent.
Don’t say mean things about each other.
Don’t burden the kids with the details of the divorce legalities.
Don’t ask the children to take sides. It’s a no-win situation for them.
Don’t completely ignore one another.
Don’t ask a child to spy on the other parent and report back.
Don’t ask your child to pass on messages or notes to the other parent. Even something that seems harmless and super basic could prove demanding for a child.
6. Talk positively about the other parent
As much as you can, use positive language when discussing your parenting partner. When kids hear negative things about a parent, they may believe something is wrong with them, too.
7. Remember quality over quantity
Remember that children are not property to be divided up. Work to develop a healthy relationship with kids based on mutual love and respect, not on the exact number of hours spent with them.
On holidays, go with the flow as much as you can, and communicate ahead of time with your co-parent to avoid last-minute schedule changes, skipping (or doubling) kid’s meals, and other complications.
8. Keep those limits
Resist the urge to become overly permissive. Whether it’s due to fatigue or feelings of guilt, divorcing parents may let discipline slide. But during this time of upheaval, children need the security of limits and boundaries.
When moving children between households, keep the transition as simple as possible, and try to minimize changes to the routine.
Often, making the switch before or after another activity, such as a soccer game or other after-school activity, is helpful because it’s a time when children switch gears anyway. But every family is different — watch for signs of stress and try to reduce them.
9. Keep an eye on the kids’ reactions
Don’t make assumptions about children’s reactions to divorce. Every child reacts differently — but be sure to let your kids express their emotions. Consider professional counseling if stress-related behaviors aren’t improving.
It’s not unusual that parents are so busy that they miss the signals that a child is suffering in silence, says Kimberly King, author of the children’s book When Your Parents Divorce.”
She adds that many moms and dads “don’t recognize the many opportunities they have to ameliorate stress-provoking situations and facilitate a sense of calm, predictability, and even joy, by way of some simple forethought and planning.”