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Helping Your Child Cope with a Divorce or Separation

If you’re going through a divorce or separation, you’re probably concerned about how it will affect your child. While this parting of ways is between you and your partner, this undoubtedly can be a difficult time for your child as well. The family as they knew it is no longer the same.

While you can’t make the worry, guilt, anger and anxiety go away, you can help your child cope with and overcome the difficulties and challenges.

How divorce and separation affects children

“Divorce can impact kids in a number of ways—emotionally and psychologically—and can increase their risk for mental health problems, regardless of age, culture or socioeconomic position,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital.

Children can act up, withdraw and regress. It’s not uncommon for young children to revert back to behaviors like clinginess and separation anxiety, bedwetting and temper tantrums. For older children, their grades may begin to slip, they may withdraw socially, become more irritable or short-tempered or engage in risky behaviors.

“Most of these changes tend to resolve within a few months, but it’s an important reminder of just how important it is for parents to work together in the best interest of their child—making the adjustment as easy as possible for everyone.”

The following are some suggestions to keep in mind when guiding your child through a divorce or separation.

Breaking the news to your child

Talking about divorce or separation with your child can be tough. Although you and your partner have discussed it ad nauseam, your child may have no clue about what is going on. “To them, this could totally come out of left field,” Dr. Fox said. “Some may have a sense that something isn’t right, while others can be totally taken aback by this change.”

Here are some tips for breaking the news with your child:

  • Plan ahead. Think about a good place and time to talk. If you can, it’s best for the both of you to talk to your child together a couple of weeks before the separation takes place. This will give your child time to process the situation.
  • Be prepared. Your child may have lots of questions – who is moving out, where they are going, etc. You want to be reassuring about what that will look like. Younger children may not need as much detail, while older children may ask more questions.
  • Tell their teachers. Consider telling their teacher and guidance counselor a day or two before you discuss with your child. They can be prepared for any changes in behavior or schoolwork and keep you updated with any concerns.
  • Reassure them repeatedly. Your child may assume they are to blame. If only they hadn’t done this or that, then surely their parents would still be together. Explain that divorce is an adult problem and there is nothing they could have done to prevent it or change it. Reassure them often that you both love them very much and that it wasn’t an easy decision but you’re here to make things work better for the family.

Helping your child cope

Divorce and separation are tough and difficult even in the most admirable breakups, but there are some steps you can take to make it less painful.

  • Encourage your child to talk. When they talk, listen intently and try not to interrupt. It’s normal for children to have trouble expressing themselves, so be patient. Remind them you are a safe place to share. If they don’t feel comfortable speaking with you, help them find someone they can trust.
  • Keep your child out of the fight. Show respect for your partner in front of your child and others. Don’t speak badly about them in front of your child, don’t force your child to pick sides, use them as a pawn or argue in front of your child. “Oftentimes when parents fight, children focus on picking sides,” Dr. Fox noted. “Continue to show respect for your ex or spouse.”
  • Keep routines as normal as possible. Children thrive on routine. Work toward creating a common routine and schedule between both households [Check out: How to Improve Your Co-Parenting Skills].
  • Ask family and friends for support. There are many sources of support to help you and your child through this difficult time. If you need to, reach out to friends and family for help.
  • Get help for yourself. It’s perfectly fine for you to have emotions related to the situation, but don’t turn to your child for comfort. If you need help sorting through your feelings, consider joining a divorce support group or seek counseling.
  • You are still a family. Continuously explain to your child that no matter what, you are still a family, even if everyone doesn’t live together. No matter what, your child wants to know that there is unconditional love, regardless of the parents’ separation.

When should you call the doctor?

If your child is showing signs of distress or maladjustment as a result of the separation or divorce, speak to their health care provider or find a behavioral health specialist who can help.

“Remember, the conflict between you and your partner will have an effect on your child’s mental health,” Dr. Fox said. “Focus on encouraging your child to stay strong, provide unconditional love from you both and focus on common parenting goals.”

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Relationships Behavioral Health Children's Health