Getting a Divorce 5 Tips to Help Your Children Cope

Getting a Divorce? 5 Tips to Help Your Children Cope

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Learn how to cut down on children’s distress

When parents are getting a divorce, children can become extremely upset. Even if there was tremendous friction between the parents, the family is breaking apart. Children are often panicked about what will happen in the future. Will they see both of their parents? Where will they live? Everything feels different. Fortunately, there are five behaviors that parents should avoid that can help cut down on their children’s distress.

Avoid fighting in front of your children

When parents fight, children become terrified for their parents’ safety and their own. They worry that one parent will hurt the other with words, or even physically. They love both their parents and are very sensitive to their parents’ pain. Though it’s often a time when the adults feel a great deal of anger, and old patterns can easily erupt, it’s best that parents’ walk out of the room to resolve issues. Or, if they know things are becoming volatile, they should set up a time to speak on the phone, when the kids aren’t around. Seeking help from a mediator can significantly cut down on these battles.

Do not say hurtful things about their other parent

Children love and rely upon both of their parents. If one parent makes the other out to be bad, it undermines the child’s sense of security. Once more, it harms the child’s self-esteem. Children are a compilation of both parents, and if one parent is deficient, children conclude they are deficient too.

Never grill your children

Asking your children questions about their other parent puts the child into a very difficult position. The child is in the middle, and he feels a tremendous loyalty conflict. For instance, if you ask, “What time did your mother get home last night?”, your child might be afraid to give you the information. She might worry that you will get angry at her mother. Or, she might be afraid she is divulging a secret, and her mother will get angry at her. She desperately wants to please both parents and not start any battles. It’s better to get the information you’re looking for directly from the other parent or give up the need to know.

Do not try to quell your child’s emotions

Parents badly want to feel that their kids are not harmed by the divorce. This makes it very hard for them to see their kids cry or to listen to their rage. But, it is normal for children to feel very sad and angry about a divorce. The adults are making a momentous decision and the children feel sad and powerless to stop it from happening.

Give your children the freedom to express their feelings

 Reassure them that it’s natural to cry and it is okay with you. Encourage them to verbalize their anger, too. You might tell your child, “When you feel angry about the divorce, I want to know. Talk to me about it, and I will help you.” Responding with phrases, such as, “I understand how you feel,” and going over the reasons for the divorce is also important. You might explain, “Your father and I are fighting all the time, and it’s not good for any of us. We feel it will be better if you spend time alone with each of us.’”

Similarly, do not diminish their wishes. It is normal for children to wish that their parents will get back together again. This dream often lingers into adulthood. Parents often become uncomfortable when they hear a child express this wish, and make light of it because they can’t make it happen. It’s important to acknowledge the child’s wish, by saying, “I know you wish this could happen.” This issue becomes extremely prevalent when other “friends” enter the picture. To children, it means that their parents will never get back together again. That is why children are often mean to the newcomers. They attempt to push the interlopers away, in all sorts of aggressive or passive-aggressive ways, hoping they will disappear.

Divorce is traumatic for every family member. But the grown-ups can help by keeping their children’s feelings as the primary concern, observing their behavior and providing their kids with the support they need.