Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Divorce and Kids: 8 Ways to Get Them Through

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A divorce or separation is hard enough but as any parent knows, when kids are involved the needs and feelings of the two broken-hearted grown-ups will come second to those of the broken-hearted kids. 

That doesn’t mean a separation shouldn’t happen. When a relationship has run its course, chances are the kids will feel the tension or perhaps the fading of one or both of you – and that’s not good for anyone. Perhaps the decision is out of your hands, but as hard as it is to hold on through the wreckage, you will get through and come out the other side. That’s a given. 

Chances are if there’s trouble and you’re the one reading this, you’re not the one who needs to be. Keep reading though. At the very least tweak what you can, take comfort that you’re on the right track and send the link in the direction it needs to sail with a non-told-you-so-message, ‘… Because the kids deserve two brilliant parents’ (or something like that.)

Here’s what you can do to make a difference: 

  1. Minimise what you give them to cope with.

    Kids are resilient, just like adults. But in the same way a break-up can bring those resilient adults to their knees, it can do the same to those resilient children. Resilient doesn’t mean bullet-proof. Separations are awful for everyone – resilience doesn’t change that. Kids will be confused, scared, angry and broken-hearted. How long they stay that way will depend on how the separation is dealt with. Kids will cope with the day to day changes – they’re pretty amazing like that – but any emotional wreckage they’re drawn into will fall them.

  2. Don’t lean on them for support.

    Children need to know you’re the lamplight, the ladder and the leaning post for them and that you’re stable – even if you aren’t, which for periods you won’t be. You’re human and you’re real and it’s perfectly okay and completely normal for you to cry, howl, scream, complain and fall part – so go for it, but just avoid doing it in front of them. It’s completely okay for them to know you’re sad, exhausted, or confused, but they also need to know that you’ve got this – even if you don’t feel as though you do for a while. The primary questions in their minds will be, ‘Are you okay?’ and, ‘What about me?’. You can be sad and okay, broken-hearted and okay, exhausted and okay – just let them know you (and they) are going to be okay. Let them know there are plenty of people who are looking after you, so you can look after them. Be their support and their comfort, the one they can cry to, complain to and fall apart in front of, but let someone other than them be that person for you. 

  3. If you’ve met someone else you want to be with, treat your current partner with respect, love and kindnesson the way out.

    It happens and it’s not for anyone else to judge who you fall in love with and the timing of that. What you will be judged on is the way you treat the person you’re with on the way out. This is important. You’ll be co-parents forever and you’ll want him or her on-side as much as possible. You want to minimise the conflict for the sake of the children. Nothing will fire conflict more than starting a relationship while you’re still in one, or while the other person you’re still with has every reason to believe in and expect your loyalty. Ditto for showing your new relationship to the world while the door to your previous relationship is still swinging closed. Being sensitive to the emotional needs or your ex, and treating him o her with respect, compassion and sensitivity on the way out is important for all of you, especially your kids. Breakups are painful, and much of this will be unavoidable. This will ease in time as everyone adjusts to the new normal. The speed and ease with which this adjustment happens will be influenced by the extra (avoidable) variables that thicken the mess, such as the way you handle a new relationship in the early months of a separation. 

  4. Love your kids more than you want to hate your partner.

    This. Is. Critical. Say what you want about your partner but never ever say it in front of your children. Similarly, don’t withhold your kids from their other parent because you are hurting or angry. It’s understandable that you might want to, but you will pay the price. There’s an abundance of research showing the devastating effects on children when one parent undermines the bond between the child and the other parent. The research also clearly shows how parents who denigrate the other or act to undermine the relationship between the child and the other parent have less close relationships with their children than parents who don’t do this. Imagine what it would be like for you if somebody said things to you about your kids. Then imagine how you would feel if you weren’t able to tell them to stop. Get it?

    Denigration by one parent of another parent is associated with less close parent-child relationships, especially with the parent who is doing the trash talking. 

    Whatever you say or do to the other parent in front of your children, you may as well be doing to those children. They’ll feel it just as surely as if you were. You probably would have fought with warrior daring once to protect your now-ex from slap talk. Your kids will feel the same. There was once a time when you thought your ex was the best person to be ‘the other most important person’ in your child’s life. Your views on that might have changed, and that’s completely okay, but don’t be the one to force your child down the same path. You can find another partner. Your child only has one mum and one dad. Don’t be the one to take that person away. 

  5. If you’re the parent who is struggling to hold things together in the face of a trash-talking, interfering ex, hold steady.

    Kids don’t stay kids forever and they will – without a doubt – see the truth one day. I know it doesn’t feel like it when you’re going through it but the parent who continues to love their children enough to respect their relationship with the other parent will come out closer to their children than the other parent. Not that it’s a competition, but it is a fact. 

  6. ‘But what about me?’

    When their world is turned upside down they’ll need a ton of reassurance that they’ll be okay. Explain how things will work. Have this worked out as soon as you can to give them the stability they need. Let them know where they’ll be living, who they’ll be living with and what the separation means for their relationship with the other parent.

  7. Be patient with your ex if they’re struggling to be without you.

    It’s perfectly understandable, and perfectly likely that in a separation at least one person will at some point, feel on the brink. Remember that your children are directly impacted by the well being of your ex-partner. If your ex-partner is struggling, be empathic and compassionate. That doesn’t mean you have to be the target of nonsense behaviour. You don’t. But if you were the one who left, remember the person who is driving you crazy with their lack of reasonable behaviour is devastated to have lost you. Be patient until they find their way out of it. 

  8. Divorce or separation is NOT failure.

    People come into our lives to teach us or to learn from us. That doesn’t mean the learnings take a lifetime to unfold. If at some point, the growing stopped being together and started being apart, that does not mean your relationship wasn’t beautiful, important or exactly where you needed to be when you were in it. What it means is that it has given you all it needed to. Don’t stay for longer than you have to just because once upon a time, a long time ago, you said you would. If you’re the one holding on, let go – you deserve more than to be with someone who wants to be somewhere else.

There’s no reason kids won’t come through the other side of a separation safely and soundly, but this depends on how their parents deal with the fallout. Claiming that it all hinges on this one thing is not overplaying it by any means. The children will adjust eventually, provided the adults don’t draw them into a dirty heaving mess. 

In the stormy sea of a separation, the only way through is straight through the middle. Nothing will make it easy or leave you keen to repeat the experience, but there are things that will make navigating through the rough waters easier. 

Stabilising the ground while you’re falling on your knees towards it is a heroic effort. But that’s what parents are aren’t they. Heroes.  

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10 Comments

Hcbkbr

I’m interested to see how the above works in the case of a divorce from an extremely controlling man. Someone who cannot be told no or has to have his own way regardless of his daughter’s needs.
I have sought advive from a solicitor, sent letters and booked mediation. I’m trying my best to encourage my daughter regardless how I feel.

Reply
heysigmund

It’s so difficult if you’re the only one playing fair but trust me, they do grow up and figure out the truth for themselves. You are doing an amazing job. You are putting your feelings with regards to your ex-husband aside and doing what’s best for your daughters. I know how difficult this is but it will be worth it. You’re amazing and one day your daughters will thank you for being the one to stabilise their ground during such a difficult time.

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ABCD

I have been staying with my son and two stepchildren (daughters) for the past 5 years. Their mother constantly nags over phone. She talks bad about me and this irritates me and my husband a lot. Will it effect them if stop these phone calls. Earlier they used to eagerly wait for their mother’s calls, but not so much nowadays.

Reply
heysigmund

It’s so difficult – you can’t change anyone else and you can’t stop people from saying what they’re going to say. I completely understand why it upsets you. In the meantime, your home can be the place where they aren’t pressured to show loyalty one way or the other or listen to awful things about their parent. Trust me – they will appreciate that more than you could know. Let them feel safe to talk to you about what their mother is saying by absorbing it calmly, rather than getting upset about it. You don’t want to give them a reason to stop coming to you. About the phone calls, I don’t know the circumstances but generally, I would be extremely reluctant to do anything that gets in the way of communication between the kids and their mother unless, of course, what she is doing is dangerous. Whatever you and your husband feel about her, she is their mother. Let them make up their own minds, but I wouldn’t be the one to get in the way of the relationship. Comfort them, steady them and let them know you’ll always be there. I’m a stepmum myself and it certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing, so I understand exactly how you feel. You may have read this article about step parenting but just in case, here is the link … http://www.heysigmund.com/being-a-stepparent/ . My best wishes to you and you’re family – I know it isn’t easy, but it will be worth it.

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Anna

I’m feeling very guilty, me and my husband have been arguing and fighting for the past 7 years, it’s just unbearable now. My daughter is now 8 and she has changed a lot, she has becomed ungry, sometimes she behaves like a much older child, she shouts for no reason and becomes irritable very frequently . I feel so guilty and I blame myself and my husband for not giving her a stable family. I really want to leave my marriage but I always thought that bern together was better for her that been divorced. I’m worried about her and I’m not sure what to do. I feel depressed, very lovely and vulnerable.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Anna it isn’t divorce that hurts kids, but the way parents handle it. There are plenty of miserable kids in families where the parents are married but are mean to each other or fight all the time, and there are plenty of kids in families where the parents don’t live together who are thriving because there is calm. Leaving any relationship is difficult, but when there are kids involved it’s monumental. All couples fight and there’s nothing wrong with kids seeing that disagreements happen, but the problems come when the fighting is constant and when they don’t see enough loving, nurturing behaviour to balance out the chaos that comes from the fighting. If you are going to stay together, it’s so important that your fighting is done away from your daughter. She deserves that. She deserves to be in a home that is calm and loving. I can hear how much you love your daughter and how much you want her to have a stable, happy home. This can happen if you are together or if you are apart, but it’s up to you and your husband as to how you manage this. You deserve to be happy, so does your husband and daughter. Now it’s about working out how best this is likely to happen.

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Nic

My spouse and I decided to separate almost a year ago. Since then we’ve been living in the same home for the sake of the kids, but we alternate evenings and weekends spending time with them. He has been in the guest room for the past year as well, and my kids are young enough that they don’t think anything of it…yet. We don’t speak to each other, and he used to use the “stonewalling” technique even before we decided to separate, so it actually feels normal to not talk. We just text each other when we need to communicate about kids activities. I can feel that this is affecting my kids as well, just because Mommy and Daddy are not verbally fighting in front of them, there is tension. Lately I’ve been feeling like I can’t be myself around my kids when he’s around. I’m just afraid of taking the next step to move out and uproot our kids from their home. He has indicated wanting split physical custody, and I’m so worried how that will affect the kids..having two homes to get used to and the shuffling back and forth. Also I know I’ll miss them terribly when they are not with me and that scares me as well. Is it better to just stay in my current living arrangement rather than sell this house and move?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

This is a decision that will depend on you, your partner and your circumstances. It sounds as though there are a few things happening here that will be creating a difficult environment. The first is that the tension between yourself and your partner will likely be felt by the kids. We don’t give kids enough credit. They are wise and sensitive and very able to pick up on the things that aren’t right. The second issue is that it will be difficult for either you or your partner to move forward with your own lives while you are living under the same roof. For some couples living under the same roof might work really well, but with the tension you have described, it sounds as though this is becoming more and more difficult for both you, your partner and your children. The most important thing for kids in dealing with a separation is how the parents deal with it. If you can both be okay (or okay in front of them), they’ll be okay. On the plus side, living under the same roof is obviously a way for both of you to be near your children, but you don’t need to both be physically present all the time to have a solid, wonderful relationship with them. The children need a relationship with both of you, but this doesn’t have to happen under the same roof, particularly if the arrangement is creating ongoing tension or stress within the home.

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