How to Help Children Navigate Divorce
August 19th, 2022
Divorce can be hard on anyone. Children can have a difficult time adjusting to living with separated parents. Depending on the age of your children and the level of conflict in your divorce, your kids might feel pulled to take sides, or blame themselves for your failed marriage. Keeping your kids in mind as you work through the divorce process is essential. So is being sensitive to how children navigate divorce.
Telling Your Kids About Divorce
Your divorce shouldn’t be a surprise to your kids. Unless there are safety concerns (as in cases of domestic violence or child abuse), they should know that you and your spouse intend to separate soon after you do. This will give them time to process the shock of their home dividing and ask you and your spouse questions about what is going to happen in a way that doesn’t feel pressured.
If you are able, you and your spouse should talk to your children about divorce together. It should be presented as a mutual decision (“Your mother/father and I have decided to get a divorce”) rather than a one-sided thing (“Your mother/father is leaving”). Both parents should work hard to keep hard feelings out of the conversation, and be certain to emphasize that the divorce is not your children’s fault. Make sure they know that each parent still loves them and will still be part of their lives even after the divorce is final.
Answering Kids’ Questions About Divorce
Ask your kids how they feel about the separation, and what questions they have. Assure them that there are no right or wrong ways to feel, and that they are allowed to be angry or sad about what is happening. If they don’t have questions or don’t want to talk, promise them you will be available for when they do. Then keep that promise.
When children ask questions about divorce, they most often reflect concerns about how the process will affect their day-to-day lives:
- When will the separation happen?
- Who will live where after the separation?
- When will the kids get to see or talk to each parent after the separation?
- How will the separation affect the children’s school and personal plans?
- Will the kids still be able to see friends or participate in activities?
- Where will they go to school or religious activities?
- How will holidays be celebrated
Try to give your kids a clear picture of what life will look like during and after the divorce. At the same time, don’t make promises you may not be able to keep, like saying that the kids will still live in the marital home if you think it might need to be sold. Instead, be honest about what is certain, and what is still uncertain.
Helping Different Age Children Cope with Divorce
Children of different ages react to divorce differently. Developmentally, younger children are less able to understand what causes a relationship to end, and more likely to assume they have done something wrong. Older children and teens are more likely to take sides and hold grudges against the “at fault” parent.
It is important to make sure each child has one-on-one time with each parent as the divorce goes on. This will give them time to ask questions and express their feelings about what is happening. This may mean being flexible with your parenting time schedule, but it will be worth it to protect the bond your children have with each parent.
At the same time, you should be aware to watch out for health and behavior changes that could signal that your children are struggling to cope with the divorce. Younger children may show signs of regression, like bed wetting, sucking their fingers, crying, or clinging. They could also experience moodiness, anxiety (especially around parenting time exchanges), sadness, or problems with friends.
Older children may have new problems eating, sleeping, or regulating their moods. They may engage in risky behaviors like skipping school, having trouble in class, getting into fights, or experimenting with drugs or alcohol. If you see any of these behaviors, talk to your co-parent about getting your child a therapist to help them cope with divorce and process their feelings in a healthy way.
Strategies for Helping Children Navigate Divorce
Children are almost always innocent parties to any divorce. Their ability to navigate and cope with the divorce process depends on their parents’ ability to separate adult issues from childhood experiences. Here are some strategies you can use to help them.
Keep Divorce Conflict Away from Your Kids
A top priority should be to minimize conflict during parenting time exchanges. If you and your co-parent can’t be civil, then don’t be in the same place. Use a third party known to the children to provide transportation, or drop the kids off in the driveway (if they are old enough) and stay in your vehicle. Set up a separate time to discuss things like property divisions and custody issues.
Don’t Make Kids Act as Messengers, or Spies
It may be tempting to ask your kids, especially teens, to pass messages to your spouse or ask them to report back about what happened during parenting time. However, putting kids in the middle will only make it harder for them to cope with divorce. If they feel like you are asking them to find bad things about their other parent, they may try to defend that parent, turning them against you in the process.
Children can also be crafty, sometimes. They may try to play one parent off the other, or take advantage of triggers or sore spots to get what they want. Communicate directly with your spouse, or through your attorneys, before going through your kids. Invite them to talk about their time with the other parent if they want to, but don’t pry. Whatever happens, make sure they know it is okay for them to be happy to see their parent even if you are not.
Get Support for You and Your Kids
Your kids will need someone to talk to about the divorce that is not you or your spouse. This could be a teacher, counselor, religious leader, therapist, or child psychologist. Not every child will need therapy during divorce, but they will need someone they can express their feelings to who isn’t involved in the conflict.
At the same time, you will probably need someone to talk to, as well. If you are close to your kids, it may feel natural to talk about what you are going through with them. But this can increase their own pain, making them deal with adult emotions and issues that are beyond their developmental abilities.
How Courts View Communications With Children
Keeping all of the above in mind, courts view communications with children as very important. Orders that parents are not to discuss adult matters concerning their divorce or use children as messengers or go-betweens, even on parenting-time issues, is standard. None of the above should be used to alienate the other parent. Everything should be age and developmentally appropriate. Joint legal custody means, among other things, that you must work out what to tell your children, in the most appropriate way, consensually, as co-parents.
Separation and divorce are always hard times for children, but there are ways that you can help. The divorce attorneys at Lawrence & Jurkiewicz help parents in Hartford and Litchfield County work through the divorce process and protect their children’s best interests along the way. Please contact us today online or at (860) 264-1551 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.