Children and Divorce

Are you and your spouse going through a divorce and trying to figure out how you will help your children through the process? Or are you already divorced, and having problems helping your children understand it?

Significant family changes such as divorce can have a big impact on children of all ages—from infants to teens. More than one million children each year experience the divorce of their parents, so you—and your children—are not alone.

It is very important to devote considerable time and energy to helping your children understand and adapt to this change in your family. Though you and your ex-spouse will be dealing with difficult personal issues, it is crucial that you also consider your children’s needs, fears and emotions as your entire family deals with the process of divorce.

> Read the “Children and Divorce” Fact Sheet in English
> Read the “Los ninos y el divorcio” Fact Sheet in Spanish
> Listen to the Parenting Today Radio Show on Children, Divorce & Dating (mp3)
> Listen to our PODCAST on Children and Divorce with ABC7’s Leon Harris

How does divorce affect children?

Divorce affects every child differently, especially children of different ages:

  • Babies—even in their first few months of life—can feel the effects of divorce. Changes in surroundings, caretakers and schedules can affect sleep patterns, development and emotions. Parents’ stress can have a considerable impact on an infant’s own stress levels; they may cry and fuss more often than normal or have more trouble sleeping.
  • Toddlers are not able to understand abstract concepts yet, so words like “marriage” and “divorce” will not help them understand what you are doing. Because it is hard for them to understand, they may become sad or withdrawn or act out their anxiety by biting or hitting.
  • Preschoolers are at an age when they often fear the divorce is their fault. They may also worry that the parent they are still living with will also leave them, even if they are just leaving to run an errand or go to work.
  • Grade-schoolers may also blame themselves for the divorce, and often act out by withdrawing or being aggressive at school.

Children of all ages need to be reassured that the divorce is NOT their fault and that BOTH parents will always love them, even if they are not living with them. Children of all ages going through their parents’ divorce need extra attention, comfort and displays of affection.

How can I best help my children deal with divorce?

Keep in mind that actions speak louder than words. You may say “Daddy still loves you very much,” but be sure that the child ALSO sees his father on a regular basis and is SHOWN how much both parents still care for him.

Stress and other negative emotions can be easily transferred from parent to child. Do not express negative feelings (including anger, resentment or jealousy) toward an ex-spouse in front of your children. If you feel yourself starting to do this, call another adult to talk about your feelings. Do not involve your children, who are already dealing with enough emotions of their own. It will only cause confusion.

Children see themselves as extensions of their parents. If you are bad-mouthing your ex, your child may feel that they are betraying you by loving their other parent. This puts children in a very difficult position that can prevent the vital development of a healthy relationship with both parents.

Keep the lines of communication open between you and your ex-spouse. Your children will be watching closely to see how your relationship changes during a divorce. It is crucial—for your children’s happiness and security—that you and your ex-spouse continue to communicate. This not only instills in them a sense of security, it is also an important lesson in cooperation and communication.

Challenges for Families with Divorced Parents

Divorce and discipline. When children are being raised in two different homes by two different parents, discipline can become an even bigger challenge than usual. Different rules, different punishments and more can cause confusion and encourage misbehavior in children.

If possible, practice teamwork with your ex-spouse. Decide on the rules and punishments that you can both agree on and carry out when your child is with each of you.

For many of you, teamwork is simply not an option when it comes to you and your spouse. If there are issues you can’t agree upon, make your own house rules and stick to them. Experts agree that children are able to understand and follow different rules in different places.

Most importantly, be consistent, especially if certain rules apply only in your home. Children may test their limits, especially if they are “getting away” with something at your ex-spouse’s house. But stand firm with your rules-children are constantly testing their limits and parents are supposed to establish them.

Divorce and schoolwork. Both self esteem and academic performance can be affected by a marriage breaking up. But while self esteem can rebound over time, school work can sometimes continue to worsen once a child has already fallen behind.

Ask your child how they are feeling, including how they feel about school. Both parents should stay involved and be informed by attending school events and staying in touch with teachers.

Divorce and scheduling. When two parents live in different homes—and often different towns-it can be hard for children AND parents to adjust. Develop a plan that works for your situation; some families may rotate on a weekly basis, others simply visit a parent every other weekend. Create a calendar with red stickers for “Mom’s house” and blue stickers for “Dad’s house,” allowing your children to have a clear idea of where they are every day. Keep in mind that, especially for infants, changes in schedule can be very stressful. No matter what house the children might be in, try to keep the same eating and sleeping schedule. This can make the transition between two homes easier. A structured schedule, regardless of the home, can help kids feel safe and trust that things are going to be okay.

Divorce and the holidays. Holidays can be hard enough for families with both parents living in the same home. But when parents divorce, there can often be conflict over where, when and how to celebrate the holidays. Discuss this with your ex-spouse and have a plan before the holidays arrive.

The finality of divorce: a tough concept for many children

Many children hold out false hope that someday their parents will get back together. Kids need to believe a divorce is final before they can work through the anger, loss and fear they are experiencing. It is important to help them realize that your getting back together is not a possibility so that they can begin their healing process.

Don’t risk the assumption that your kids immediately understand you won’t be getting back together. Instead, tell them about it immediately. For children three years and younger, keep it very simple by saying something like, “Mommy and Daddy are not happy together so Daddy is moving to another house and we are not going to live together anymore.” For older kids you can provide more information about the decision, but never place blame on the other parent.

Some children may think that if they behave, help with chores or do well in school, that their parents will get back together. It is important to tell your children—and repeat—that they did not cause the divorce, and that you and your ex-spouse will always love them, no matter what.

How can I help myself better deal with my divorce?

Divorce is tough on children, but it is obviously very difficult for parents too, especially when they are busy helping their children through the process.

Parenting responsibilities may seem even more daunting when going through divorce. You might feel less capable as a parent, or overwhelmed by the responsibility—especially if you are now the primary caregiver.

Take time to take care of yourself. Build a support system of family members, friends and others (such as your minister, rabbi or doctor). Consider joining a parent support group to help you through the process.

It is important that you take care of yourself so that you can take better care of your children during this period of change.

Divorce is an ongoing process for both you and your children. Do your best to take care of yourself and take care of your children by reassuring and showing them that you both still love them and that you will both always be there for them, even if living in separate homes. And be prepared for continued discussion about divorce; as children grow up they will be able to understand more about the concept and most likely have more questions for you.

Above all else, stay focused on your children’s needs during and after the divorce process. They will need your attention, your support and your care in order to best adapt to your changing family.