How Divorce Impacts Children
It is widely known that divorce, or any other type of family separation, can be detrimental to children. Regardless of the developmental stage of the child, going through a divorce can leave permanent emotional scars. One of the most popular questions from parents who are getting divorced is “How do I talk to my kids about the divorce?” and “how much should I tell them?” below are some helpful tips to remember when opening that conversation with your children.
1. Keep the lines of communication with your children WIDE open:
You want to make sure your children feel safe talking to you about any topic; this can be particularly hard if they have strong opinions regarding the divorce or they are placing blame on either parent. Remember, this is about them not necessarily about you.
Choose your words very carefully. Avoid using terms like ex-wife/husband/partner or any other derogatory term around your kids. While you might be having conflict with your former spouse, they are always going to be your child’s parent. Furthermore, using the term ex- could create a sense of instability in kids- “Can I be an ex-kid?”
Be mindful of non-verbal cues, in particular with teenagers. Kids and youth are attuned to non-verbal forms of communication. Some examples include, rolling eyes, the tone of voice you use, facial gestures, etc can all signal negativity regarding the other parent.
2. Parental conflict is the biggest predictor of poor outcomes for children going through a divorce:
As previously mentioned, divorce can be tough for kids. This is a popular topic in the media. However, the huge role that “conflict” plays is often left out. Divorce can be challenging; emotions are in direct conflict with logic and arguments are bound to happen. Parents should be mindful of creating “conflict free zones” around their kids. When your children are present you and your spouse need to be a united team and model appropriate communication and behaviors. Fighting needs to be done behind the scenes.
3. BE PRESENT:
You must always remain actively engaged in your child’s life. Regardless of your personal issues related to the divorce. Again, this is about them not necessarily about you. Due to the unstable nature of divorce, kids will rely on you to maintain some semblance of stability for them.
If you feel that your divorce is consuming you and affecting your ability to be present with your kids seeking the help of a therapist/mental health professional is always recommended.
4. How do I get my kids to open up?
You don’t! Kids will come to you when they are ready, forcing communication doesn’t work and eventually, kids will become more withdrawn.
Being a single parent can be extremely demanding. However, during a divorce, it is very important for your kids to know they are loved and valued. Schedule one-on-one time with each of your children and make sure that this time is fun and intentional.
It can be hard to not react when we hear something we don’t like. You won’t always like what your kids have to say. It will be uncomfortable and you might get defensive but it is important to listen and learn exactly how they feel. We need to listen more than we talk.
Put yourself in their shoes to see things from their perspective. Use active listening and reflective listening.
5. Prepare your kids for “the talk” :
Hiding conflict from your children can be your natural instinct, however, if children believe that their world is perfect they can be blindsided by the news of the divorce. Leading them to feel betrayed and with a sense of having been fooled by parents. While conflict-free zones still apply, it is important for you to pull back the curtain a little so kids are aware that parents are having some issues.
Have a parenting plan and be prepared to answer a lot of questions that might not make sense to you but will frighten your kids.
- Where will mom/dad live?
- Where will I live?
- What about my stuff?
- What about school?
- When will I get to see mom/dad?
Have both parents and children present. If your children vary widely in age, try your best to group them by age range or maybe think about doing individual talks.
Tell the children first, choose a time when everyone is feeling good and can concentrate, allow plenty of time, no advance warnings. Have the talk in a familiar, private and emotionally safe space.
6. Children’s needs at different ages:
When talking to your kids about divorce, their age and developmental abilities need to be taken into consideration. For example, you will need to have a different level of conversation with a 5-year-old versus a teenager.
7. Children’s reactions and worries:
Divorce creates a sense of instability and fear in kids. This is because a relationship(s) and connection(s) that appeared permanent and safe to them are now disintegrating before their eyes. Some Common worries children experience during a divorce process include:
- If my mom and dad don’t love each other anymore, is there a chance they won’t love me?
- Is this my fault?
- Can parents divorce their kids?
- What is going to happen to me?
Your main goal is to maintain that sense of stability for your children. Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page and have a similar set of rules and expectations at both homes. Do your best to co-parent peacefully; this will require you and your spouse to pick and choose your battles and meet each other halfway. The most important rule in creating stability is don’t use kids as messengers or as sources of emotional support.
8. Be prepared:
Resistance is normal; kids will fight the divorce and you. It will take some time for your children to accept what is happening.
Issues with affection are normal. Kids might choose to withhold signs of affections as a way of showing you they are not happy about the divorce. Validate their emotions and continue to show them that no matter what you love them unconditionally.
9. Moving forward and the 80/20 rule:
You are bound to move on one day and maybe find a new partner. Warming up to a new relationship can be challenging for kids and your former spouse. Share with your co-parent that you are in a relationship and have a conversation about how you both feel about sharing this information with kids. Timing is everything; you need to wait until your children are ready to introduce them to your new partner, and this might take a while. Even when ready, make sure you take baby steps and take your cues from your kids. In their mind, this person is trying to take over the role and place of the parent who is now gone. They will have a hard time accepting it.
The 80/20 rule refers to the time spent between your kids and your new partner. New relationships can be exciting and, much like a teenager, you are going to want to spend a lot of time with this new person. You have to remember that 80% of your time must be sent with your kids (especially if you share custody) and 20% with your new partner.
Always remember to be sensitive about affection towards your new partner in front of your kids and process with them any worries and concerns they may have.
Alejandra is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and Professional Clinical Counselor (AMF #105469, APC# 4917). She graduated from Brandman University with a Masters in Psychology; she also holds a Bachelors in Psychology and Criminal Justice from California State University, San Bernardino.
Currently, she works for a non-profit organization that provides mental health services to schools in southern California. In addition, she also works for a private practice where she specializes in working with children, youth, and families suffering from a variety of issues such as academic performance, learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and grief.