Everyone knows the statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. What we often forget, however, is that a majority of these divorces impact children under the age of 18. Many parents struggle with guilt or fear of how the divorce will impact the lives of their children.
Because kids depend on parents for feeling secure, it’s normal for a child to feel scared or confused when they see their mom or dad hurting or increasingly distracted by new challenges. When parents fail to communicate the reason for their changing emotions and home environment, often a child will misinterpret what’s happening. They might begin to assume that they caused the divorce, or they might take responsibility to try and reunite their parents.
How do you know that a child is struggling with divorce? Younger children may regress to behaviors they had previously outgrown, such as wetting the bed, wanting a pacifier, or throwing tantrums. You also might notice that they seem more anxious or upset when separated from you. Older children might experience a range of emotions, such as anger, guilt, or even relief that their parents are separating. They become more aggressive when angry, experience symptoms of depression or anxiety, and begin to withdraw or isolate from others.
Here are some other common behaviors or symptoms that can occur:
- Academic or behavioral problems
- Mood swings
- Less socializing with friends
- Less cooperation with everyday tasks
- Decreased self-esteem
- Increased irrational fears
- Lack of interest in communication
As emotions may run high between parents during a divorce, adults may try to parent separately rather than together to reduce fighting. However, as contact may become more manageable over time, parents often find that it is easier to work cooperatively when it comes to scheduling and making big decisions.
Here are some additional strategies that many parents have found to be effective when helping their children cope with divorce.
Communicate together – If it’s possible, don’t tell the child about the divorce alone. Both parents should be present. To help kids prepare for upcoming transitions, communicate what’s happening as early as possible, rather than at the last minute.
Don’t use them – Try not to rely on a child for emotional support during a divorce. You can draw strength from their love, but support should come from friends, family, and professional guidance if needed. Try not to complain about your ex in front of your kids, and definitely don’t use kids as a go-between to relay messages.
Acknowledge the “sad” – You might feel tempted to paint the divorce as a happy or better situation for everyone. While things may improve over the long-term, it’s important to take the time to acknowledge to your child that divorce is sad, frustrating, and confusing at times. Don’t sweep those emotions under the rug.
Prevent the spread of stress – While it’s important to acknowledge that divorce is difficult, make sure that your children aren’t overhearing you complain or stress about financial concerns or other issues pertaining to the divorce. They can absorb that anxiety and fear and may feel like they have to share the responsibility of fixing things that are adult concerns.
Provide structure – Moving back and forth between two parents and two separate households can be less stressful if a child has similar rules and expectations with both parents. Bedtimes, responsibilities, and consequences should be as similar as possible. If you can, try not to cancel or change plans at the last minute.
Encourage relationships – A child should never feel like they have to choose between parents. Let him or her know that you want them to experience a positive and loving relationship with the other parent, so they won’t feel torn. They shouldn’t feel that they have to hide funny stories or happy thoughts with you about your ex.
Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Family counseling, school counselors, and peer support groups can be excellent resources for you during this difficult time. The more you take care of yourself and take responsibility for learning mature strategies for navigating life, the more energy and focus you can give to your kids. If you’re not sure where to start, make sure your kids know that you’ll always love them and you’ll always be their parent. If they know these truths, chances are you’re already heading in the right direction when it comes to raising healthy and happy humans.