Helping a Child Cope with Divorce

My 9-year-old son has had some emotional problems at home and school. I have worked very hard to give him a structured routine and secure environment, and it is finally paying off: he has started to settle down and has very few outbursts. My problem now is that my husband has moved out and filed for divorce. My son is very close to him and I'm afraid this drastic change will send him back to the beginning and cause more outbursts. I am quite shaken and would appreciate any advice you have on this matter.


Robert Schwebel

Clinical psychologist Robert Schwebel, PhD, has been in private practice for almost 30 years, counseling children, couples and... Read more

It must be very stressful for you: Just when your son is beginning to settle down with all your help, his father moves out. Hopefully your son's father will make every effort to maintain a good relationship with your son and remain close to him, just as, I am sure, you will. One book that parents have found helpful in dealing with divorce is How to Help Your Child Overcome Your Divorce by Ellissa P. Benedek.

Some of the principles of helping children adjust to separation and divorce are fairly universal. Here are some of the basics:

• Both parents should remain actively involved in the children's life

• Children's routines should remain as stable as possible

• Children should be given an age-appropriate explanation of what is happening, and also a clear explanation of what this means to them in terms of where they will spend nights, when they will visit, etc.

• Children will be upset and need extra attention and reassurance

• Children should be given on-going opportunities to express their own thoughts and feelings, and permission to have negative emotions, such as anger about what is happening

• Children should be given an opportunity to ask, and have answered, all the questions they wish to ask about a divorce

• Children often blame themselves for parental conflict and must be told that they are not at all responsible for the parents separating

• Children need to be reassured that while parents sometimes grow apart and leave each other because of conflict and because they are unhappy with each other, parents do not leave their children, even when there is conflict and unhappiness (children will not be abandoned). A marriage can end, but a family does not end

• Parents should not bad mouth one another. Children should not be used or put in the middle of the conflict under any circumstances. Hopefully you and Dad can co-parent in a cooperative way, and rise above whatever problems existed between the two of you.

Although children adjust differently to divorce, most experience considerable distress during the early stages of this process, and some have negative thoughts and painful memories that endure. However studies have also shown that children can develop significant strengths as they learn to cope with the difficult changes. Parents can help by avoiding verbal aggression toward one another and cooperatively working out custody and other child related differences. Unresolved, seething conflict is very stressful to children. For your sake and your son's, you should seek help and support from friends, family, support groups, and if you want, counselors or psychologists. The best thing you can do for your son is to remain a stable, well-functioning mother who maintains a strong parent-child bond despite this sad, unhappy situation.


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