Divorce and Kids: 8 Ways to Get Them Through

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.  

13 Comments

Greta J

I really loved your advice to keep you kids out of the mess of a divorce as much as possible and definitely do not talk about your ex around them. Yesterday, I was talking to my sister, and she stated that she is finally ready to move on and get out of her bad relationship with her husband. I hope that she looks for legal help to get through this challenging time. And, I hope she follows your tips.

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Anna

I really related to this article and found it suited my situation well. I have been at odds with my decision since I made the choice to end my marriage. Thank you

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Cindy

My husband and I have been married for 11 years and they have mostly been miserable. He has been out of work for over a year during that time, I’ve had to pay off a lot of his debt, I’ve discovered he has depression and anxiety, he’s not affectionate , he’s chosen to sleep apart from me since I was pregnant with our second child, which has now been 3 years, he has bought/leased 9 cars in 11 years, he used to skip family functions, nowhe attends but won’t do anything with any of my friends. It’s been a really rough ride and I’ve felt a lot of resentment and envy over other people’s relationships. I often have vented to my older daughter about my husband and now realize how bad that is. We have very little in common and I feel like he can be great sometimes but really horrible quite often. I’m a very easy going happy go lucky person and he’s very erratic, moody and controlling. What should I do? Today my uncle, whom I haven’t seen for a few months, said that I looked miserable and pissed off – I almost started crying. I had no idea I was giving off that aura. I’m tired of always trying to hold it all together for the kids. They are my everything and I want them to be happy but I’m pretty sure my marriage was a mistake and they are getting a bad idea of what a loving relationship should look like

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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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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.

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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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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.

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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 … https://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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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.

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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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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