Helping Kids Cope with Divorce

September 8, 2016 | Category: Articles

Divorce can be especially difficult on children. In addition to making decisions such as evaluating child support and visitation options, divorcing parents also worry about how their decision will affect their children emotionally.

The good news is that most studies find that children of divorce usually fare just as well as other children over the long run. But the short-term effects can be frustrating and upsetting, to say the least. Effectively managing a child's reaction to your divorce requires:

  • Patience;
  • An understanding of how children's needs change over time; and
  • An ongoing, open line of communication with your kids -- and your former spouse.

Evolving Awareness: Infants to Teens

Infants. Pre-verbal children don't know exactly what's happening when parents file for divorce, but they can sense emotions and disturbances in their daily routines. They also lack object permanence. If a baby is separated from his or her primary caregiver for an extended period of time, he or she may feel abandoned, even if the caregiver subsequently returns. Visitation can be difficult at this age, but non-custodial parents also need time to bond with babies.

Parents who divorce when their children are infants get to deal with questions about divorce at each stage of their children's development. After all, dealing with divorce isn't just a one-time discussion. As they grow and process information, today's babies will have additional questions as toddlers, preschoolers, grade schoolers, teenagers -- and even as adults.

Toddlers. Two-year-olds live in the present. They realize that one parent no longer lives at home, their routines have changed and perhaps they get less attention. Their reactions to divorce can include nightmares, aggression, anxiety, and regression (such as reverting to crawling). Child psychologists typically recommend consistent routines and methods of discipline between the two households.

Toddlers may also ask their caretakers -- nannies, preschool teachers and daycare providers -- questions about divorce. Small kids need to hear a consistent message. So, discuss your preferred explanations with caretakers -- and get on the same page as your former spouse.

Preschoolers and early grade school age children. Kids in the early school years have mostly pragmatic concerns. For example, they want to know where they'll live, go to school and spend the holidays.

Young children also may blame themselves for your separation, and they understand that divorce means their parents no longer love each other. This awareness, in turn, can lead to fears: Did I cause the divorce by misbehaving? If mom and dad stopped loving each other, will they stop loving me someday?

Preschoolers lack the emotional maturity to articulate all their questions. So, don't wait for kids to initiate a conversation. Reading books about divorce or role-playing with toys helps young children work through their concerns.

Also know that your divorce may affect your child's social life. Bullying peers who don't understand divorce might add to your child's guilt and fears. Or non-divorced parents may overlook your kids for play dates and sleepovers. They may think it's too complicated to schedule get-togethers between divided households -- or they may not want to take visitation time away from a non-custodial parent on the weekends.

Pre-adolescents. Self-centered pre-teens may resent their parents' decision to divorce. They also are developing a sense of right and wrong, which can lead to judgments about their parents' behavior.

Stay in charge. Watch for regression (like a toddler!), depression and high-risk behaviors. A pre-teen's expressions of anger may be masking his or her feelings of loss. Try to put up a united front with your ex-spouse, because this is the age at which children learn how to play parents off one another to get what they want.

In addition, this is a good age to revise your visitation schedule to allow your child to attend extracurricular activities (football games, dances, soccer practices, concerts, trips to the mall, etc.) Some parents schedule formal reviews of parent arrangements and visitation plans to coincide with a child's 8th grade graduation, for example.

Teenagers. Parents often mistakenly think that teenagers have the emotional maturity to handle divorce. But teenagers are still children. More than ever, they need strong role models and parental involvement. Pre-adult children may also project their parents' unhappy situations on their own future relationships.

Many teenagers know the intimate details of their parents' divorces, causing them to side with one parent. Some parents even give teenagers control over their own visitation or custody plans, which can cause guilt and depression.

After the divorce is settled, talk with your teenagers often. While it's healthy for them to know you're back on your feet, avoid burdening them with your dating dramas. And never use teenagers as negotiators, sounding boards or messengers for you and your ex-spouse.

Young adults. Many young adults live at home after graduation, relying on parents for shelter and financial support. When one household splits into two -- resulting in double the expenses -- young adults may need a backup plan. For example, parents may not be able to continue financial support and provide assistance paying off student loans.

Adult children also feel a unique sense of loss, especially around the holidays. Be sensitive and flexible as you adapt new traditions -- and encourage sibling bonding as a way for grown-up kids to cope with divorce.

More than Age

Beyond age, other factors determine how your kids will respond to divorce, including:

  • Gender. Boys may act out more than girls when their parents’ divorce, in part, because boys aren't as comfortable expressing emotions.
  • Social support. Kids need to have friends and family -- on both parents' sides -- to lean on.
  • Personality. Easygoing children who are good problem solvers usually cope with the stress of divorce better than their high-strung counterparts.
  • Parents' reaction to divorce. Above all else, high levels of parental conflict after divorce -- as well as parents who turn to alcohol, play the "blame game" or become depressed -- adversely affect how kids adapt.

Turn a Negative into a Positive

There is no "magic age" that your child should be when you divorce. It's is hard on kids, young and old. But if you address your child's financial and emotional needs in a deliberate, positive manner, your child can grow from the experience and eventually become a more sensitive, responsible adult.

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