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Helping Children Deal With Divorce

Updated on October 17, 2011

Talking with kids about divorce

How to tell the kids - 10 tips for divorcing/separating couples

The ending of a relationship is always sad, and if there are kids involved, things become exponentially more complex because it's really no longer about you as the parent. Not a fun place to be when your heart is broken and you really need help for you. The problem when kids are involved is it really becomes about them - how do we tell them?, how do we help them cope?, how much do we tell them?, how will they be able to stay at the same school/keep old friends/deal with moving, changes in finances, potential new relationships???, and keep both ourselves and them sane? How do you share a house with a soon to be ex without creating a cold war zone? - and how do you deal with your own feelings of anger, betrayal and desire to squish your partner into a million little pieces and not drag your kids down into the mud with you?

Unfortunately there is no simple answer, but here are a couple of suggestions:-

1. If you fight in front of the kids - stop right now!! It doesn't matter what he said/she said/did - that's a matter for discussion between you and your partner - end of story.

2. Don't think that kids don't know. While that may be easier, and make us feel better, it's simply not true. Most kids, even very young one's have a sense that something is going on even if they don't know what - and while the idiom may be "ignorance is bliss" it's not that way with kids.

Think of you kids sitting playing with legos - and suddenly it's a fighter plane, a spaceship, a battle ship, a house for just imagine what their imaginations do with the little pieces of information they get - they blow them up, they add things, they distort things (much like adults, but more so) - and everything revolves around them & by extrapolation is therefore related to something they did. This is one of the areas most kids of divorce struggle most with - what did I do? Could I have done something different? Is it my fault because I ate the cookie when mom said no? Kids brains will latch onto anything to try and make sense of the world and, given their limited experience with things, they often mix things up.

While it's absolutely essential to have "grown up" business, it's important to acknowledge that something is going on and to give a developmentally appropriate explanation. When kids are in the dark they rely on their imaginations - and often what they think is going on - is much worse than reality. The experience of knowing something is going on, but having it denied is very unsettling (ever walked past a chatty group at a water cooler who quieted when you approached and said "what's up" to have everyone say in unison "nothing" and scurrey back to their desks? - what would you think?). It's really the same with kids and the idea that what they don't know won't hurt them is inaccurate.

It's the same argument that's used to defend domestic violence "but they were too young to know", well turns out, that's not the case. Exposure to domestic violence, even and perhaps especially preverbally can lead to significant later emotional problems, problems with realationships annd difficulty regulating emotions. Kid's know, it's up to you to set them straight and show them how to deal with a difficult situation (afterall, you they'll have to negotiate some tough stuff themselves someday).

3. Talk with your partner first and decide between you what you will say, role play a few times to anticipate questions and reactions (remember, most kids are more afraid when they think their parents are afraid and out of control). It's okay to be sad, don't deny your feelings, kid's need to know that it's a sad thing, but limit it. This is not the time to justify your decision by explaining what a cad your soon to be ex is. Once you have decided what and how to say - set aside some time (if you have regular family meetings this may be a good time, so that kids don't think everytime you say "we need to talk" that something dire is about to happen), and approach the kids together.

4. Remember, this needs to be a choreographed piece, it sends the message, even though your mom/dad and I will not be living together, we will still function together to look after you. Afterall, that's the commitment you made to the kids at birth, they need to know you'll both still be there - and, more importantly, that their needs override those of you & your spouse, that no matter what, they will still be safe and taken care of.

5. Allow and anticipate questions, tears and anger - all normal, uncomfortable, especially when directed towards you, but necessary. Keep in mind that this sets the template for your kid's first and subsequent romantic relationships. If you scream, yell and throw things - chances are they will too.

6. Revisit the subject - this is not a one shot deal & much as you may want to, you cannot hole up in a cave after this. Kids need to see that there will still be love and structure in their life. depending on the age, a kid's most important concern may be - Can I still play with Petey, do I still get to go to grandma's this weekend or do we still get pizza on Fridays - and as trivial as those concerns may be when your entire life is disintegrating in front of you...that's what is holding their world together. Kids need to know that they can ask questions without either getting into trouble or overwhelming you/your spouse.

7. Set up a concrete schedule if you don't already have one and make sure visitations, behavioral expectations - bedtimes, consequences etc are clear and consistent between home. As difficult as this may be given that separating spouses/parents may have different child rearing philosophies - you both decided to have the child, you have to have single parenting plan - both for the child's sake and to save your own sanity (it really cuts down on the..."but dad/mom/grandma etc says I can at their house"

8. Get your own support. Really, this is a tough situation for everyone and you need a place to vent where your kids are not present. Use girlfriends, guy friends, work confidents, pastors, therapists, support groups - what ever it takes. The better you do at dealing with the divorce, the better your kids will do - and encourage your kids to do the same. there are many excellent divorce support groups.

One in particular, Kids Turn is exceptional! They have age graded classes for kids to address the different developmental issues likely to arise and have a great syllabus with a focus on helping the child know that things will be different, but it's not their fault. They also have concurrent parent groups (2 at a time, so you never have to be in a group with your ex). The program consists of 6-8 weeks of weekly groups with a graduation at the end. If you live in the Bay Area, I would highly recommend these groups.

9. Ask your kids what they think/how they feel/what they need. The tough part is - you have to be willing to hear it and sit with it-sometimes you can't fix your kid's pain, and your kids may be mad - you just messed up their whole world for reason which are beyond (and should stay beyond) their grasp.

10. Remember that no matter how hateful your spouse may have been/currently is. It is never helpful to try to justify your decision to your kids on the basis of your partner's behavior (with the obvious exception of child abuse/domestic violence in which case the message needs to be that you are ending the relationship to keep everybody safe). As hard as it is, remember that this is your child's other parent and to ask them to choose between parent's is a Sophie's choice. Also, dissing your partner in front of the kids has a way of coming back to bite you in the butt when you least expect it and may actually function to push kids towards the partner you are trying to save them from.

Top 5 mistakes divorced people make with their ex's

Fighting Fair

As mentioned in number 10 above, fighting fair is essential to a good divorce, so to speak. Don't drag the kids into it, if you have an issue with a parenting style, technique/intervention with your child, talk with your ex quietly about it, and if you are too emotional to do this, have a friend with you for support and to help mediate (you may have to bake them a chocolate case for this!).

If you cannot be in the same room and be civil with your ex, get some help. It doesn't matter if it's the other that's "at fault", you're the one who'se going to fix it. Practice, practice, practice, anticipate responses which are going to get your goat and how you will deal with them. Set a time limit on meetings and have a specific, written agenda.

Get all agreements in writing (no matter how silly it seems) - much of the post-divorce conflict comes from misunderstandings and poor communication (as well as pepole's unresolved anger towards each other). If you think there's a chance of the situation becoming volitile - meet in a public place (hopefully at least 1 of you will be embarrassed to have screaming match at the public library).

Limit the topics for discussion - and stick to it. Now this is going to take practice as you are both by now experts in pushing each other's button's, but do whatever it takes to stay cordial - it's harder and less fun to fight with someone who is not pushing back.

Use I statements - yup, sounds silly, but can be very helpful to neutralize and break blaming patterns - the formula is this " I feel.......because" - and it's about you! - not I feel mad because you are such an x, y,z. Stick to your own feelings and behaviors - those are all you have control of.

So what you might say is something to the effect of "I feel frustrated when I try to talk to you and I feel that you are dissmissive towards me by saying x" and then, just like with kids - give an alternate behavior choice either "when I feel you are being dismissive I'll let you know by, for example scratching my ear and perhaps we could take a 5 minute time out and reconvene when we are both more able to listen. (by the way, self time outs rank in my top 5 all time favorite interventions for kids and adults - harder to fight when the other person is in the bathroom, right?)

Fighting fair doesn't mean giving up your point of view, but it establishes some basic ground rules - no yelling, no disrespect, no put downs and, yet again establishes good modelling patterns to teach kids how to deal with conflictual situations. If it's absolutely impossible for you and your spouse to agree on the central issues, consider some targeted therapy and/or mediation. Divorce can be tough on kids, but it's the infighting, undermining and back biting which really does the damage - and that goes both ways - as much as you expect your spouse to enforce your discipline & expectations, you have to do the same.

The effects of divorce

Kids and divorce

The effects of divorce, what does the research show?

As mentioned earlier, there are some discrepancies in the research, but here are some of the studies which have contributed to current thinking about children and divorce.

In 1999, a longitudinal study by O'Connor, Thorpe, Dunn and Golding published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry came to the following conclusions regarding child adjustment following divorce:

The study examined the link between the experience of divorce in childhood and several indices of adjustment in adulthood in a large community sample of women. Results replicated previous research which found a long-term correlation between parental divorce and depression and divorce in adulthood. Results further suggested that parental divorce was associated with a wide range of early risk factors, life course patterns, and several indices of adult adjustment. Regression analyses indicated that the long-term correlation between parental divorce and depression in adulthood is explained by quality of parent-child and parental marital relations (in childhood), concurrent levels of stressful life events and social support, and cohabitation. The long-term association between parental divorce and experiencing a divorce in adulthood was partly mediated through quality of parent-child relations, teenage pregnancy, leaving home before 18 years, and educational attainment.

So what this study tells us, is that, despite an association between divorce and future difficulties for children (including a higher likelihood of their own divorce), these factors were largely mediated by parental interactions and relationships. In other words, despite the fact that divorce placed these kids at higher risk for future difficulties, the factor that made the biggest difference was the quality of child-parent relationship and the parent-parent relationship - an incentive to hold your tongue when your ex is pushing your buttons.


Co-parenting - the research

In a fascinating 2009 study by Schoppe-Sullivan, Weldon, Cook, Davis & Buckley from Ohio State university, a link was found between the effectiveness of co-parenting in divorced couples and their children's ability to control and direct their behaviors as the liklihood of externalizing or acting out behaviors. "Coparenting behavior, or the extent to which parents support or undermine each other's parenting efforts, has also been identified as an important correlate of children's socioemotional adjustment."

The study tested whether coparenting behavior moderated longitudinal relations between preschool children's ability to control their behaviors and their level of acting out behavior. The conclusions drawn by the study were as follows: Effective coparenting served as a buffer for children, such that when parents displayed high levels of supportive coparenting behavior, the link between difficulty with behavioral control and the increase in acting out behavior often associated with kids from divorced families was not observed.

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A dad's perspective on raising relatively healthy kids

Working mothers - what does the research show?

One of the biggest concerns many women face following a divorce is the necessity of working. many mothers have been out of the workplace, raising kids for several years This is often both intimidating and anxiety producing, not only financially, but also raises mother's concerns for their children's well being. There are many stories out there to make a working mom feel that she's letting her kids down, so what does the research really say about the impact of working mothers on kid's development?

Firstly, there is significant inconsistency in the research, so part of it depends on whose research you are reading, which is a strong argument for knowing where to find decent, scientifically sound research, not just reading the newspapers, which are often horribly inaccurate about studies. Given this, the best way to understand and assess the research in this area is by using meta-studies (studies which look at a variety of studies and then determine the overall effect size of the interventions - ie how effective they appear to be or the overall significant influential factors). Meta-studies in this area indicate that the effect of a mother's working on a child's development tends to be somewhat different depending on the child's gender and the family socioeconomic status.

One of the most important findings of this research is that there does not appear to be any disruption in attachment of children who are sent to day care (even from as young as 3 months). This is an area which worries many new mothers and one which is often used to engender guilt, so rest easy on that one. The most important determinants of secure attachment (which is essential for the development of healthy later relationships) are consistency and quality of caretaking - not quantity. It's making the most of the moments you have with your kids that count. Kids of moms who stay at home, yet do not interact significantly with their kids/baby sit them with TV actually show lower academic achievement than children of engaged and attentive working mothers.

One of the most consistent findings in this body of research, is that children of working mothers have more egalitarian sex role concepts and may be somewhat more flexible in role assignment in relationships in their later years (good news for all of us who expect boys to do the dishes!) Overall, (and remember, these are summaries of multiple studies), middle class boys of working mothers tend to have slightly lower academic achievement, overall whereas lower socioeconomic level boys of working mothers tend to do somewhat better than those of non working mothers.

The research with girls has not shown as clear differences between girls of working and non working mothers. One of the hypotheses for the above results is due to the fact that research has shown that teachers (regardless of gender) pay more attention to boys and call on them more often and that this may account for some of the gender differences. Boys, however are also the recipients of more negative comments of the "sit down, will you be quiet" variety.

So, what does this tell us? If you're a working mom - there is little evidence that simply going to work is harmful for children (& being able to pay the rent is a significantly good thing for kids!). The important part is making sure you have enough mind left at the end of the day to be able to interact with your kids in a positive and loving way. Remember, you're setting up templates for how your kids understand and interpret the world (so try to talk about the positive aspects of your job too!)- and if you're a stay at home mother? pretty much the same - quality time and interactions are what set the tone for a child's personality development, so help them get out and see and do different things (it's good for you too!).

The bottom line? The research has consistently shown that the single most important factor in determining resilience is the presence of a consistent, caring, involved adult in a child's life. So, divorce may be a risk factor for kids in some ways and is obviously never ideal, but there is ample evidence that this can be compensated if if the adults involved agree to put their own differences aside and work with each other to co-parent the child/children in the best, most consistent manner possible. If you can always keep the idea of - in the best interests of the child in mind, you are well on your way to repairing any damage that may have resulted from the split.

The factors most associated with later damage (and boys tend to show more difficulties immediately preceeding the divorce, while girls tend to show a more elayed reaction, often in adolescence) are the level of hostility both before and after the divorce, inconsistency in parenting styles, parent negativity towards the other in front of the children/any undermining behavior and parent level of depression (so if you're hurting it's okay to get help for you too!)

Keeping the principal of the best interests of the child should also help curb your own behavior - is it really in your child's best interests to ream your ex out for being late? How do you want them to deal with a situation in the future? - little eyes and ears are everywhere, let that guide your behavior, and take care of you!


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    • dr c profile imageAUTHOR

      dr c 

      9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Thanks for reading & for your support!

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 

      9 years ago from Cape Town

      Good info Dr C! Hope some parents in the throes of divorce take it on board

    • dr c profile imageAUTHOR

      dr c 

      9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Thanks, I really appreciate your perspective as a child of divorce.

    • Aya_Hajime profile image


      9 years ago

      There is a lot of good information here. I agree with most of what you say. My parents divorced when I was young and I had to go through a lot of what you discussed. I think "keep your kids out of it" sums it all up well.


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