Helping your kids handle divorce

My husband and I just told our children that we are getting a divorce. My 11-year-old son is doing a lot of talking, which I perceive as a healthy way to understand the situation. My 14-year-old daughter is totally clamming up. I don't know what to do.


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Arrange for the children to visit what will be their father's new residence as soon as possible to establish their ongoing connection and relationship with him. Also, he should let his son and daughter know how and where he can be reached and what arrangements he will make to spend time with them. If these details have not been decided, ease the pain by slowing this process down, if at all possible.

Whether or not one or both the children should be present when their father moves depends on their readiness to help him, as well as his readiness to have their help. Discuss what is in their best interests, before asking what their preferences are. It is likely, however, that it is you who will not want to be present.

Although things have not worked out in the marriage, the two of you still have two children to raise together. Speak with your husband about keeping the children out of your conflict as much as possible. Also, reassure them that they will continue to be loved and cared for by the two of you. Let your children know that your love for one another has changed, but that your love for them remains strong and constant.

Divorce is painful and it is traumatic for children and spouses. Still, how parents handle divorce makes the difference in their children's healthy adjustment or potential maladjustment. Here are guidelines that family researchers have identified to help ease this transition.

What you can do:

  • When possible, make decisions to reduce other changes your children will experience during this transition. Avoid a change in your residence, or change in the schools your children attend, if at all possible. Children need a support system of friends, teachers and other adults to help them through this change.
  • Reduce immediate financial stress by taking a loan from relatives, if necessary. Use credit for temporary relief, until you can stabilize. Consider refinancing your home on a low adjustable mortgage and consolidating other debts, until you can get back on your feet, both emotionally and economically. This will also free up money for support services as you travel through this family crisis. Studies have found that poverty resulting from a divorce -- not father's absence -- was associated with the greatest disturbance in kids. This is not to say that fathers are not important: They are! But even in cases where fathers disappeared, financial support was also withdrawn, resulting in a lifestyle change and decreased resources for many children of single working mothers.
  • Make an agreement with your spouse to refrain from talking about the details of the divorce. Do not talk badly about the other spouse to the children. Refrain from arguing in front of the children and do your best to keep them out of your conflict!
  • Do not give a child more responsibility than they are ready for.
  • Do not make a child a confidant for the pain the divorce is causing you. Seek a support group to help you through this period. Share your feelings with friends and professionals, who can help you grieve and reclaim yourself from the marriage.
  • Support connections with extended family. Help your children avoid choosing sides or being caught in a conflict of loyalty between the two parents they both need and love.

Family experts also advise that parents establishing co-parenting after a divorce reduce conflict by staying clear of any discussion about their relationship. Focus instead on what is in the best interests of your children, and what you can reasonably do to support your child's positive and strong relationship with both parents. Establish clear, agreed upon boundaries to reduce pain and protect the children from any unresolved marital conflict.

Let your children know you are sad and be available for their feelings, too. Cry together and grieve together, but stop short of blaming. Look into programs in your area that connect children with others their ages who are going through a similar experience. Let them know they are not alone. Work to accept their anger, but do not fail to continue to set limits as appropriate to their ages.

Your son is talking about his feelings, while your daughter seems to be keeping her feelings inside at the moment. Let your daughter know you are available to her when she is ready to talk about it, and acknowledge that you know it is very hard for her, too. Keep in mind that your daughter is further into adolescence, which is a time of pulling away and separating. Paradoxically, the divorce creates instability. This may make her movement toward independence more difficult for a while. Encourage her to spend time with her father. Both children should experience some reassurance and initial relief as they experience continued and consistent contact with their father, even though he is moving out of the family home.

Children fare best when parents are able to keep them out of the middle and work toward reducing their conflict post-divorce. Quality contact with both parents and low conflict are the two best predictors for adjustment in children.

High conflict, which continues to trap children in the middle, even after divorce, is the greatest predictor of poor adaptation in children, according to family research expert Froma Walsh. This held true for a variety of custody arrangements.

Take care of your children, but do not forget yourself! Seek support through this period of mourning for your marriage. One year following divorce, over half of women report their lives are improved, and 65 percent credit positive emotional and psychological growth to their divorce.

Be assured, that while you are in the midst of crisis, you have the opportunity to work your way through grief and toward recovery. Take to heart the well-worn phrase so many family therapists use to describe this journey: a process of "crisis and transformation."

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