Divorce and Children


When you're getting a divorce and children are involved, it introduces uncertainty and chaos into your children's lives. For them, it's like their whole world has been turned upside down.

With this in mind, one of the best things you can do for your children is to provide stability. Even little things like maintaining their pre-divorce routine and activities give them something familiar to rely on. And keeping regular meal-times and bed times can help provide the consistency your children need.

Dealing With Their Emotions 

Some common emotions that children experience are anger, humiliation, rejection, and neediness as they adjust to the loss of their old family structure. While they miss their Dad, they may not express it for fear of appearing disloyal to you. They may feel as if no one understands what they are going through. Consequently, they may withdraw and lose interest in hobbies, school, friends, and the general enjoyment of life.

Mother comforting her son to help him deal with his emotions about his parent's divorce

It is important to be emotionally available to help your children work through their feelings. An excellent book that captures the essence of children's feeling about divorce is "It's Not Your Fault, Koko Bear" (#ad) which puts into words the emotions many children experience when their parents divorce. Even though it is written for younger children, adolescents can relate to it also. 

Children have a tendency to blame themselves for the divorce, and will try to transform into the perfect child in hopes of keeping their parents together. It is very important to stress to your children that misbehaving, a dirty room, or bad grades didn't cause the divorce. Let them know that divorce happens because of conflicts between two adults. Assure them that they didn't cause the breakup, and that you love them just the way they are.

Common Questions Children Have About Divorce

It's important to let your children know they can share their feelings to you. Sometimes reading a book about divorce can help open the dialog. Other times, you might pick up when they are withdrawn and you can ask if something is bothering them. Even car rides or snack time can provide the opportunity to open the door for conversation.

Let them know that whatever they want to discuss is okay and that they can express their honest feelings about divorce with you. Try to patiently answer your children's questions in a straight-forward manner without bitterness. Here are some common questions about divorce your children may ask:

1. If you stopped loving Dad, does that mean that you can stop loving me? Explain that the love adults feel for each other is very different from the love between a mother and her child. Stress to your children that you will never stop loving them.

2. What will happen to me? Where will I live? Be honest about the living arrangements and what changes will occur. Let them know that although you take their feelings into consideration, these are adult decisions. If you give false hope regarding their wishes, they will be very disappointed later on and may feel like you deceived them.

3. Why are you getting divorced? This is one of the hardest questions to answer, because it can difficult to explain why you're splitting up without pointing blame towards your ex. Be as honest as possible, but don’t burden them with adult issues or make accusations. Sometimes just saying "We can't get along anymore" will suffice. If there was infidelity or abuse, you might tell them that the marriage had adult problems that were unhealthy and being together was bad for both of you. Children are very intuitive. They have probably sensed for a long time that things weren’t right between you and your husband. Remember that if you start berating your ex, you are putting down their Daddy and putting them in the middle.

4. Can I still see Dad? Be honest about the child custody arrangements and what the visitation schedule will be. Reassure your children that they can call or facetime their father anytime that is reasonable.

5. How will we live? Will there be enough money? Dealing with the financial impact of divorce can be tough. If your standard of living will be changing, let them know. But don't project your worries about how you will survive onto your children. Suggest ways to cut back and let them contribute their ideas, which can give them a sense of control over their situation. And find ways to compromise so that they can still enjoy some of the things they did before.

Providing Stability Through the Transition

If the children are living with you, don’t be surprised if they seem to take their anger out on you, or lay on a guilt trip about the divorce. You are the parent that is most available, and they probably feel safe expressing these emotions. Just realize that this is a normal part of the grieving process.

It can take up to two years for children to adjust to the changes brought on by the divorce. To help in their transition, you need to provide a stable environment. Give your children a sense of consistency and structure by keeping a regular household schedule and setting clear limits and rules.

Before, during, and after your divorce, offer your continuing encouragement and don’t lean on your children for emotional support. Remember that kids need to be kids. Don’t burden them with adult worries or bad-mouth your ex-husband. Let them know that it is okay to love both parents and that they will always be loved no matter what.

The most important thing that you can do is always show your children you love them and that you truly care about what affects them. Let them know that they count and that you will always be there to listen to their problems.

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For a more in-depth discussion on the subject of divorce and children, check out Donald T. Saposnek's article on Children’s Reactions to the News of Divorce.

To find out more about issues that concern children experiencing divorce, follow on with...

  1. Divorce
  2. Children
  3. Divorce and Children: Helping Them Adjust