Divorce is difficult for everyone. But it’s particularly tough for kids to watch their parents split up. Kids may feel like it’s their fault. They may feel the need to play peacemaker. Or they may hope that their parents will get back together, if only they do or say the “right” thing. They may feel like their world is changing permanently. And they may feel alone and afraid.
But that is not the case. Considering about half of all marriages end in divorce these days, they are certainly not alone. And you, their parents, can make the transition less painful and difficult for everyone.
The first step is to tell them what’s happening. Here are some do’s and don’ts for that initial discussion.
Do be open and honest. Don’t keep your separation or divorce a secret. Yes, it will be a difficult conversation. But putting it off will only make things worse. Get together with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse to discuss what you will say as soon as you can. Rehearse beforehand so you deliver the news in a cool and calm manner.
Do make sure you stress that the children did nothing wrong. Issues between you and your spouse are just that: between you and your spouse.
Do emphasize that they, the children, are the most important things to both of you. And you both love your children as much as you did before. While you and your spouse may no longer be together, you will always be your children’s parents.
Do keep things concrete. They’ll probably want to know the logistics of their new situation: Where will I live? Where will Daddy live? Who will drive me to soccer practice? Can I still sleep at Suzy’s this Friday?
Don’t over share. Yes, being open and honest is important. But kids don’t need to know every detail of your relationship. Keep your child’s age, maturity level, and temperament in mind as you explain. Only give them as much information as they need.
Don’t make rash decisions. If you can, delay moving for a few weeks. And try to keep the children’s routines as consistent as possible.
Don’t speak poorly about each other. Avoid blame, and be respectful of each other. Your children will do better if they have a good relationship with both of you.
Help them share their feelings
Kids are going to have different reactions. Tell them they can tell you anything. No matter what they’re feeling. Admit that this is upsetting and unsettling for everyone. Even you. And they shouldn’t feel the need to hide their feelings or keep them inside.
Never tell them they “shouldn’t” feel a certain way. Whatever their reactions, let them know that they’re natural.
While some kids may seem sad, others may be angry. Or they may act out now, or later, in other situations. Be sure to let your children’s teachers and school counselors know what’s going on so they can help keep an eye out for anything unusual.
That being said, they may have no reaction at all. That’s okay too. It may take awhile for things to sink in. Or they may simply not be ready to share. You’re there for them whenever they’re ready to talk.
Path to improved health
The more your kids see that you’re okay, the better they’ll feel. And the better you’ll feel! Keep yourself busy. Try new things. You don’t have to parachute out of a small plane, but you can try new hobbies. Or go back to doing things you used to love but haven’t had time to do for a while.
Make sure you eat right and exercise daily, which can have a positive effect on your mood. And connect with friends and family that can give you the support and comfort you need right now. You can also look for formal support groups through your primary care doctor, local community center, place of worship, or hospital.
Things to consider
Certain situations are tricky. Make sure you handle them properly.
Your ex doesn’t show up for visitation. Resist the urge to scream or speak poorly of your ex-spouse. Your ex is still your children’s parent and they love him or her. Let your children know you’ll wait a certain amount of time (“We’ll wait for Daddy until 10:00 and if he doesn’t get here, we’ll go to the park,”), and then leave.
You’ve got a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Divorce is full of adjustments. First, your kids had to get used to you and your spouse living apart. Now they need to get used to you with a new partner. Talk to them about how your new social life makes them feel. See what you can do to make the experience easier all around. Try to keep to your usual routines with your children. And make sure your new partner doesn’t take time away from your children.
Your children want to spend more (or less) time with the other parent. Even if you have a custody arrangement set in place, your children may want to do their own thing. Depending on the children’s ages, you may be okay with being flexible. But do make sure the children are seeing both parents during whatever arrangement you make.
When to see a doctor
Your children will experience all sorts of emotions. If they seem extreme, speak to your doctor. Also, be on the lookout for these behavioral changes:
- bedwetting or excessive clinginess
- extended moodiness
- extended anger or violent outbursts
- problems at school
- difficulty with or withdrawal from friends
- changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- risky behaviors (such as drug or alcohol use)
- defiant acts
If you see any of the above, speak to your family doctor.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How can I tell my kids about my divorce?
- What danger signs should I look out for in my children?
- What danger signs should I look out for in myself?
- How can I tell my kids we have to move?
- Are there any organizations in the area to help my kids deal with the divorce?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.