Divorce is one of the hardest things an adult can go through, but it’s also one of the hardest things that a child can go through. It’s not that divorce is necessarily the wrong thing to do – living with parents who are in a toxic marriage can actually be worse for a child in the long run than dealing with a divorce. But even if divorcing is the right choice for your situation, it’s not an easy one. And unlike the adults in the situation, a child has no say in the circumstances around the divorce. This can leave children feeling powerless, helpless, and afraid. Finding the right way to help your child come to terms with a divorce can be difficult when you’re hurting yourself, but as a parent, you have a responsibility to help your child navigate the situation. Take a look at some tips that can help.
Make Sure Your Child Knows They’re Safe and Loved
News of an impending divorce can leave your child feeling unsure about what they can count on going forward. It’s up to you to make sure that your child knows that they’re safe and loved. Children pick up on more than their parents often think. If you and your partner often fought about money, for example, it’s easy for your child to come to the conclusion that there may not be enough money to take care of them after a divorce. They may worry about having to move, about not having enough food to eat or a place to live, or about having to leave their school and friends. And these fears are not unrealistic in some situations – many single parents do find themselves in precarious financial situations after a divorce.
Children may also worry that they caused the split themselves somehow – especially if your child has overheard you and your partner arguing about things related to child-rearing or discipline, your child may believe that if they’d been better behaved, gotten better grades, or done more chores, you wouldn’t be divorcing. They can even come to the conclusion that one or both parents no longer want them.
Your child needs reassurance. Don’t lie to them – if you know that you’re probably going to have to move, for example, don’t tell them that nothing is going to change – but let them know that you will always take care of them and make sure that they’re safe and have the things they need. If you anticipate a reasonable co-parenting arrangement with your ex, emphasize that you and their other parent will continue working together to make sure that your child is taken care of. And make certain to reassure your child that nothing they did caused the divorce and that there’s nothing they could have done to prevent it. If your child is bothered by specific arguments you had with their other parent, you can explain that those conflicts were the symptom of a bigger problem with your marriage, not the cause of the divorce.
Make Space for Your Child to Express Their Feelings
Most parents already know that it’s a bad idea to vent their feelings about their ex-partner in front of their child. But that doesn’t mean that your child should keep their own feelings to themselves. If you’re the custodial parent, your child might express to you that they’re angry with the other parent for leaving. If you’re not the custodial parent, your child might tell you that they’re angry with their other parent for driving you away. If your child’s other parent frequently misses visitation, arrives late, fails to call, or otherwise disappoints your child, they might want to vent about that.
Give your child the space they need to express their feelings. Don’t join them in bashing their other parent, but don’t make excuses or defend their other parent either. If your ex has behaved badly, either during the marriage, during the divorce, or afterward, and your child is aware of or affected by that behavior, they have the right to complain about it.
It may be difficult for you to listen to your child vent about their other parent without either joining in or offering a defense (depending on how you feel). But your child really needs to be able to talk about how they’re feeling without worrying about how it’s affecting you. Make an effort to simply listen and validate your child’s feelings without arguing or piling on.
Include Other Trusted Adults in Your Child’s Life
Ideally, your child will already have some trusted adults in their life besides you and their other parent, like grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends. If they don’t have these relationships, though, this is a good time to establish and build some.
Reach out to family members who are supportive but who may currently have a distant relationship with your child. If you don’t have family or if your family is unsupportive, make an effort to spend time with trusted friends who can build a relationship with your child. Teachers, regular babysitters or daycare workers, and parents of your child’s friends can all also contribute in this way. You can even look for Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations in your community. Any child can benefit from having more positive adult role models in their life, and a child who’s been through a divorce might especially need to know that there are adults in their lives who will be there for them, regardless of any other relationships that adult might have.
Different children will have different reactions to a divorce and need different things from their parents. You’re in the best position to see how your child is reacting and understand what they need. Some children are fine with a little extra reassurance and attention, while others might need counseling to help them cope. It’s important to pay close attention to what your child is saying and how they’re behaving and prioritize your child’s needs. If you do that, your child will most likely come through the most difficult period without lasting issues.