Separation and divorce can be the most challenging time for a family. Although the breakup is between parents, it impacts the entire family and emotions can often fly high while trying to navigate through this period. The good news is that the majority of kids whose parents divorce do cope and the impact can be small if it is managed well. The following pointers offer some basic guidance.
How to tell your child
If possible, both parents should be present to break the news. Divorce creates change and uncertainty for children which can be de-stabilising, before speaking with your children have an agreed way forward of how the new situation will work for all family members (e.g. living arrangements, contact with both parents, how parents will continue communication). Speak honestly and admit that is it sad, but spare the child too much detail. Ensure they know the breakup is between the adults and has nothing to do with them, this may need repeating a number of times to offer reassurance.
Expect a mix of reactions
Depending on your child’s age and personality factors (e.g. coping skills, resiliency, communication skills, etc.), your child or children will process and express the news in different ways. It is not unusual for children to express anger, lose sleep, have anxiety, act out, lose appetite, etc. If you feel comfortable enough to share the news with the school, teachers can monitor your child and update you on any change in behaviour. Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling about the divorce and legitimise their feelings by showing you understand their perspective (e.g. ‘I know you feel sad that dad doesn’t live here anymore).
Keep your child out of the disagreements between you and your ex
Even though you may be feeling hurt by your ex, avoid speaking badly of your ex in front of your child. Don’t fight or bring up disagreements in front of your child. Avoid confiding in your child or giving your child information about the details of the separation and don’t make them choose sides.
Maintain rules and boundaries
This period will lead to inevitable changes in the family, which can create feelings of anxiety and uncertainty for your child. As much as possible keep routines and boundaries consistent. Maintain similar rules across both households, even if your child is testing boundaries.
Put your child first
Throughout the process, parents can get caught up in what is fair for them. It is important to focus on what is good for the children, even when this may not always be good for the parent. Look after yourself and seek help and support, if you are not managing your emotions then it is difficult to have the capacity to help your child through this period.
Dr. Jennifer Greene
Consultant Educational & Child Psychologist
Some further reading and resources:
‘Putting Children First: proven parenting strategies for helping children thrive through divorce’ by Joanne Pedro-Carroll
‘Joint custody with a Jerk’ by Julie A Ross and Judy Corcoran
‘The Invisible String’ by Patricia Karst (to read with children aged 4-8 years)
‘The Suitcase kid’ by Jacqueline Wilson (for children aged 9-11 years)