“Last week everyone was in one house and this week it’s different. My brother and I became like Mathieu from my class, whose parents are not together”
-Anonymous child of a divorced couple during an interview
Divorce is tough on families, however, staying together for the sake of the children may not be the best path. Children growing up in the middle of a lot of arguments, hostility and dissatisfaction could be at a higher risk for developing mental health issues and behavior problems.
Understanding a divorce or legal separation from the viewpoint of a child is hard. Children are more impressionable, particularly at a formative age, and when there is a rupture in the continuity of daily lives, they may get confused, leading to frustration and disappointments with adults around them. The good news is, parents can take steps to reduce the psychological effects of divorce on children. A few supportive parenting strategies can go a long way to helping kids adjust to the changes brought about by divorce.
Here are a few battle-tested techniques to limit disasters.
Secure your own mask first
Get the basics correct
All kids are different
Structuring the new life
Finding ways to let off steam
Seek professional help
Secure Your Own Mask First
As a parent, we always strive to make our kid’s happiness our first priority, and that doesn’t change with separation. However, during this time of divorce and separation, it’s best to first assess your own needs and mental health before trying to alleviate the strains on your kids. Your kids already know that you are going through a phase of intense pressure - they wouldn’t like you to pass that pressure to them. So be careful to protect yourself from negativity and thereby protect the kids from any unintentional emotional outbursts.
Get the Basics Correct
Financial hardships are usually common following divorce. Many families have to move to smaller homes or change neighborhoods and they could have fewer resources. Your combined assets and expenses are going to be divided. You are going to live in two separate houses and possibly have two different cars - all of these translate into different expenses and insurance. It’s important to reassess both of your individual contributions to make sure that the children are not deprived of something that they used to have or planned to have. Make sure that the school, the swim coach, the pediatrician, and other service providers associated with the children know about possible changes in schedules.
All Kids are Different
Research has found that kids struggle the most during the first couple of years after the divorce when they are most likely to experience distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief. Many kids seem to bounce back while some bounce back faster than others. Others, however, never really go back to “normal.” This small percentage of children may experience ongoing—possibly even lifelong—problems after their parents’ divorce. Not all kids are the same and depending on their age and attachment to their parents they could experience different emotions.
Young children may struggle to understand why they have to live between two places. They may worry that if their parents can stop loving one another someday their parents may stop loving them.
Grade school children may worry that the divorce is a direct outcome of their misbehavior or they may assume they did something wrong to get their parents to separate.
Teenagers on the other hand could become quite upset about parental divorce and the changes it creates. They could blame one parent for the dissolution of the marriage or they may resent one or both parents for the changes.
Each situation is unique. In certain circumstances, a child may feel relieved by the separation—if a divorce means fewer arguments and less stress.
Structuring the New Life
While you can take help from your family and friends to assure continuity for kids, remember that building new support systems for your children begins with establishing a structured environment at your (new) home.
Reduce tension: Your child is probably confused, and the tension between the two of you, may leave your child feeling pulled in two directions. A quick piece of advice on this comes from an unlikely source, Kim Kardashian (yes, Kardashian) who split from Kanye West formally in 2022. Though Kardashian and West are not together, they continue to take their roles as co-parents for their 4 young kids very seriously. "Make sure you are your co-parent's biggest cheerleader, no matter what you're personally going through," Kardashian told Vogue in February 2022. As a co-parent, you need to provide reassurance and love by letting the kids know that they still have both of their parents, only not together.
Form routines: Help your children by guiding and establishing a routine that everyone can stick to. A routine can include things like:
A visual chart with times for daily activities for everyone
Agreeing on an approach of positive and non-violent communication such as defining clear and objective pick up and drop off expectations for school and home.
Don’t put the kids in the middle: Asking kids to choose which parent they like more or using kids as messengers for co-parenting isn’t appropriate. Kids who find themselves caught in the middle are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
Finding Ways to let off Steam
During and after separation, you may notice changes in your child’s behavior. They may retreat at home or lash out at school or treat their siblings badly. To mitigate such behaviors,
Help them find a peer community and engage in sports that’ll let them blow off some steam if they need to. Having a community of friends and peers could help them be more comfortable than always being with you and possibly find gentler ways to express pent-up feelings of frustration.
Having a fun new thing to focus on can help your kids adjust and feel more positive about the changes. Taking up extracurricular activities like joining a sports team or volunteering can give your child an outlet to express themselves constructively.
Seek Professional Help
Many techniques to co-parenting’ll help your child thrive at home, but support and safety are the most important aspects when addressing your child’s needs as a whole. Following parental separation, it's normal for some kids to struggle with their feelings and their behavior afterward. If your child is experiencing severe mood issues or behavioral problems, you can seek professional guidance.
Discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician and inquire about whether your child may need professional support. She can recommend the appropriate therapy if needed. Individual therapy may help your child sort out his emotions. Family therapy could also be recommended to address tensions in the family. Some therapy sessions may also offer support groups for kids. Support groups allow kids in certain age groups to meet with other children who may be experiencing similar changes in their family structure.
In the end…
Life is continuous and divorce or separation is a transition for everyone involved, including your children. At first, it may not be easy to navigate. As co-parents, making sure your child knows and is constantly reminded that they have the support of both of you in their corner will help them move forward with a stable foundation in place. Keeping your relationships healthy and respectful can provide your child with a sense of stability as they make sense of your separation.
An application like Kiido can help you focus on better co-parenting.
Rappaport SR. Deconstructing the Impact of Divorce on Children. Family Law Quarterly. 2013;47(3):353-377.
Kleinsorge C, Covitz LM. Impact of divorce on children: developmental considerations. Pediatr Rev. 2012;33(4):147-54. doi:10.1542/pir.33-4-147