Each year, over 1 million American children are affected by their parents’ divorce. How each child reacts depends on many factors, including their age, personality, and of course, the circumstances surrounding the divorce or separation. Many times, the initial reaction of children is one of shock, sadness, frustration, anger, or worry. However, with enough planning, you can handle your divorce in a way that doesn’t have to feel like your kids’ world is crashing down on them. If dealt with appropriately, many kids can come out of divorce mentally stronger and better able to cope with stress.
Here are some tips to prepare your children for divorce and ease the transition:
Preparing to Deliver the News
When figuring out how to deliver the news to your children, make sure that you and your spouse are on the same page about how you will tell them what’s happening. It would be a good idea for you and your spouse to do some sort of “dress rehearsal” to prepare exactly what you are going to say ahead of time. Even if you feel like you can barely be in the same room as your spouse, it’s important to at least present a united front to prevent your kids from feeling like they are being pulled into taking sides. Children do significantly better with the news of divorce when their parents are positive and aligned.
Breaking the News
Make sure that when you deliver the news to your children, you are doing it at a time when stress is low and nobody has plans for at least a few hours, that way they have a little bit of time to work through their initial reaction. Making this announcement and then sending the kids to school, for example, might make it very difficult for them to focus.
Additionally, this conversation should ideally take place in a quiet, safe space—perhaps their backyard, living room, or any other space that is comfortable and free of distractions. If your children have electronic devices with them, make a rule for everyone to put their devices away during the conversation.
What specific words and phrases you decide to use during the conversation will, of course, depend on the child’s age, maturity, and temperament. However, the discussion should always include this message: what happened is between mother and father and is in no way the child’s fault. The reason for this is that many children will feel that they’re to blame even after parents have said that they are not, so it’s important to keep reiterating this message. Make sure that your child knows that your decision is strictly about adults needing to be apart due to differences.
While you are obviously going to need to discuss what will be changing in your children’s lives and daily routine, it is equally as important to focus on what will stay the same. Divorce can be extremely destabilizing, so telling your children what will not change may provide them with some comfort.
Handling their Reactions
Every child will react to this news in their own way. Some children react very strongly initially and then slowly begin to adjust and accept it, while others seemingly take the news in stride and then exhibit signs of distress days, weeks, or even months later. Either way, these are normal reactions—they are grieving the loss of a family. Remind them that it’s perfectly okay to feel however they are feeling and that you are there to help them through the transition. And if you aren’t sure how your child is feeling about the divorce, just ask them.
As children continue to react, they will likely have many questions, including where they will live, where each parent will live, where they will go to school, if they’ll still get to see their friends, etc. Be as honest as you can, even when it isn’t easy. If you don’t have an answer to something, tell your child that you will let them know as soon as you figure it out.
Helping Kids Cope and Adjust to their New Normal
As time goes on, children will begin to adjust to their new life with divorced parents. This can be difficult at first, however, there are a few things you can do to help them better adjust:
- Stay consistent. Whenever possible, minimize unpredictable schedules, transitions, or changes. Consistency and routine can go a long way toward providing comfort and familiarity for children. Don’t try to make your children feel better by relaxing limits, letting them act out, or buying them things. This can backfire, possibly making your children more insecure and less likely to recognize your parental authority later.
- Encourage communication. Tell your child that it’s okay to talk about their feelings and ask questions, but don’t push them. Let your child vocalize how they are feeling if they want to. If your child doesn’t want to talk about the divorce, don’t try to engage in a conversation about it—they may not be ready yet. Let them know that you are available if and when they are ready to talk about it. Do your best to co-parent with your soon-to-be “ex.” Parents need to communicate and consult each other on major decisions, so that the children know that their parents are on the same page. Let them know that both of their parents love them and are looking out for their best interests.
- Have a therapist on call. Before you even announce your split to your kids, it might be a good idea to line up a therapist. Providing children with a neutral place to express their feelings can help them process some of the big emotions they’re going through. It’s good to have your child start with a therapist before they start showing signs of behavioral changes.
- Don’t fight in front of the children. Studies have shown that post-divorce conflict in front of the children can lead to mental health issues down the line. Openly arguing in front of the kids can make them feel like they are stuck in the middle—something that no child should ever feel. Additionally, this conflict can set a really bad example for them, especially when they are still learning how to form their own relationships. Whether you and your ex decide to go to mediation, therapy, or just argue outside of the children’s earshot, do whatever you have to do to keep the kids out of it.
- Don’t talk poorly about one another. This can be a tough one but try your best not to lay blame on your partner to your children, even if there has been serious hostility or infidelity. This will just lead to your children feeling like they have to pick a side, which, again, is something that no child should ever feel. If you can, make a pact with your ex to not ever talk poorly about each other in front of the child.
Ultimately, changes of any kind are hard for kids. Stay patient, stay consistent, and know that you and your children will get through
By Logan Matura
At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., our Arizona Family Law Attorneys Gary Frank, Hanna Amar, and Logan Matura are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Phoenix Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator. He has also acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court, and served on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Law firm Partner, Hanna Amar is a highly-skilled Arizona Family Law Attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. She has extensive courtroom experience, and is also a certified mediator. Hanna has also acted as the President of the Young Lawyer’s Division of the Maricopa County Bar Association. Associate Attorney Logan Matura is an Arizona Family Law Attorney who received her Juris Doctor degree from New York Law School in Manhattan, NY. While in law school, she served as an intern for a Family Court judge in the Bronx, NY, and was a member of the Family Attorneys Mobilizing club. Our firm handles Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification actions, enforcement actions, grandparent and step-parent and non-parent rights, as well as other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, call us today at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com. We look forward to hearing from you.