The impact of divorce on children: Tamara D. Afifi at TEDxUCSB
How to Make Divorce Less Traumatic for Your Kids
A divorce is difficult and disorienting for a child, but providing plenty of love and reassurance can help them cope. Remind your child that you and your former partner love them unconditionally. Emphasize that kids aren’t responsible for adults’ actions, and they have no reason to blame themselves. They might have trouble processing their emotions, so spend quality time together and encourage them to express their feelings at their own pace.
Talking to Your Kids About Divorce
Telling Your Child about the Divorce
Make a plan and talk to your kids with your former spouse, if possible.Do your best to have a civil conversation with your former spouse about informing your child. Decide what you’ll say, and schedule a time (sooner rather than later) to break the news together.
- Informing your child with your former spouse can show that you both love your child and will be there to support them.
- Make an agreement with each other to keep your emotions in check and to avoid blaming each other when you discuss the divorce with your child.
Explain your decision in simple, age-appropriate terms.The right way to tell your child depends on their age. However, for children of any age, stress that the divorce is between you and your former spouse. Assure your child that they have absolutely no reason to blame themselves.
- If you have a school-age child, tell them, "Divorce is when 2 people decide not to be spouses anymore and move into in separate houses. Sometimes grown-ups change the way they love each other or can’t agree about things anymore."
- Tweens and teens often pick up information from arguments and conversations they’ve overheard. Since they likely have suspicions, give your older child the opportunity to ask questions when you tell them about the divorce.
Try to provide a few weeks’ notice before changing living arrangements.Children have a harder time adjusting to sudden changes, so tell them about the divorce as soon as you can. If possible, tell them a few weeks before you and your former spouse move into separate homes.
- Explain as many details about the new living situation as you can. Tell them when you or your former spouse is moving out, or when they’ll be moving into a home.
- Be honest if you don’t know details about custody or living arrangements. Say, “We both wanted to tell you about our decision sooner rather than later. We don’t have everything figured out yet but, no matter what, we both love you. We will both do our best to help you get through this.
Answer their questions as honestly as possible.Talk to your former spouse in advance about questions your child might ask. Be honest about how day-to-day life might change, but avoid getting into details about why you’re getting divorced.
- To the best of your ability, answer questions about where everyone will live, if your child will have to change schools, and if they can still do their favorite activities.
- In general, try not to discuss faults or blame, such as infidelity.
- In some situations, such as cases of domestic abuse, you might have to explain inappropriate behavior that your child has witnessed.
Explain an abusive situation with clear, balanced language.If your former spouse was abusive, try to tailor your language and the level of detail you provide to your child’s age. Regardless of your child’s age, emphasize that you love them, that children are not responsible for adults’ actions, and that everything will be okay. If you are dealing with a physically abusive person, get your children to a safe space before you have this conversation.
- An older child might not know how to process their feelings, especially if they've witnessed violence. Tell them, “Sometimes someone you love does something wrong, and it’s completely normal to feel conflicted. You can still love someone even if you don’t like their actions.”
- For a younger child, try using an analogy to help them understand. You could say, “Remember when Sam hit you and broke your toys? Sometimes grown-ups hit and break things, too. We have to make sure everyone is safe, so you and I will live in a different house from now on.”
Helping Your Child Express Their Feelings
Let your child talk about the situation at their own pace.Your child might not react right away or tell you that they feel fine about the divorce. Try not to force them to talk about the situation or to react according to your expectations. Give them space, and reassure them that they can talk about their feelings when they’re ready.
- Say, “It’s okay if you feel sad, afraid, angry, or have any other emotions. You don’t have to hide your feelings. I know this is a lot to process, so take your time. I’m here whenever you want to talk about it.”
Discuss their feelings while doing a low-stress activity together.Your child might get stressed and withdraw if you ask them about their feelings directly. Instead of putting them on the spot, go on a walk or bike ride together, play with toys, or play cards or a board game. They’re more likely to bring up their emotions in a comfortable, low-pressure setting.
- Try checking in with them by saying, “How have you been since we last talked about the divorce? Is there anything you’re worried or curious about?”
- If they don’t feel like talking, change the subject and try again another time. It’s normal for children to resist talking about a traumatic event for several weeks. It’s best to respect their wishes unless you notice significant changes in their behavior.
Help your younger child make a personal history timeline.Make a horizontal line across a sheet of paper, write your child’s date of birth on the left end, and write “Present” in the middle of the line. Ask them to list some memories, such as birthday parties, trips, first days of school, and when they met close friends.
- Make a timeline by filling in their good memories to the left of the point labeled “Present.” To the right, jot down future events, such as starting middle or high school or getting their license.
- A timeline can help school-age children and tweens recognize that they will get through this difficult situation. It can give them a broader perspective and show them that they can look forward to good things in the future.
Tell your child that drawing or writing might help them feel better.Try having your child draw pictures of their feelings or scenes they associate with divorce. Suggest that they write and illustrate a story about divorce and how it makes them feel.
- Stories and drawings can help both younger and older children. They might have an easier time expressing their emotions creatively, especially if they don’t have the words or confidence to express themselves verbally.
- Young children may also appreciate a storybook about separation or divorce. This can help if they are too young to make their own stories, or it could serve as inspiration.
Easing Your Child’s Adjustment
Keep your child out of the conflict.Do your best not to fight with your former spouse in front of your child. Don’t ask them to take sides or tell them bad things about your former spouse.
- Involving your child in the conflict will make the situation more confusing and traumatic.
Create comfortable spaces for your child at both parents’ homes.Keep familiar items, such as toys, games, hygiene products, favorite foods, and photographs, at your home and at your former partner's home. Try to encourage your child to feel secure and at home in both locations.
- Tell your child, “I know it’ll take some time to adjust to having 2 bedrooms and 2 houses. Please tell us if there’s anything we can do to make this easier on you. We want you to feel safe, secure, and comfortable at all times.
Maintain your child’s normal routines.While changes to daily life are unavoidable, do your best to provide a sense of normalcy. Get them up for school at the same time each morning, take them to their sports and activities, and schedule play dates with their friends.
- Following their normal routine will help your child cope with your new family structure.
Encourage them to spend time with relatives and trusted adults.Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives can remind your child that they have a solid support system. Schedule time for them to spend with both your family and your former spouse’s relatives.
- Teachers, coaches, and other mentor figures can also provide your child with a sense of stability.
Help them maintain their relationship with their other parent, if possible.Children who maintain close relationships with both parents usually have an easier time adjusting. If it’s appropriate, try not to interfere with your child’s relationship with your former spouse. While it’s difficult even in amicable divorces, try to be civil with your former spouse and support their relationship with your child.
- Maintaining relationships with both parents might not be possible in abusive situations or in cases where a parent loses parental rights. If you’re navigating a difficult situation on your own, a counselor could help you and your child cope with your life changes.
Addressing Signs of Emotional Trauma
Keep an eye out for red flag behaviors.It’s normal for children to hesitate sharing their feelings for a while, but behaviors such as aggression or emotional numbness are causes for concern. Specific causes for concern depend on your child's age group.
- Children under 5 might regress to behaviors such as thumbsucking, bedwetting, or fear of the dark. They might also exhibit separation anxiety or become excessively clingy.
- Red flags for children between ages 6 and 11 include disruptive behavior, problems at school, inability to pay attention, nightmares, and psychosomatic complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches.
- Tweens and teens might have sleep problems, problems at school, and extreme withdrawal (such as not caring about their favorite activities).
Schedule an appointment with their pediatrician if you're concerned.Sometimes, it's difficult to tell the difference between normal grieving and genuine causes for concern. Your child's pediatrician can offer guidance and recommend further action. Give them a call, tell them about the symptoms you've observed, and bring your child in for a checkup.
- Seeing their normal pediatrician before going to a counselor can also be more comfortable for your child.
- If necessary, the pediatrician can recommend a local child psychologist.
Get a referral or look online for a counselor.Find a counselor who's experienced with helping children cope with their parents' divorce. Using age-appropriate language, explain who the counselor is and how they can help. Tell your child that they shouldn't be afraid or embarrassed, and that mental health professionals are just like their regular doctor.
- Even if your child seems to be taking things well at the moment, it is often a good idea for you and and your child to see a family counselor together for a few preventative sessions.
- Try tell your child, "We're going through a tough time, and we could use some help getting through this. Sometimes feelings get really intense and confusing, but there are people who go to school and learn how to help us feel better."
Look into a support group for teens.Teenagers dealing with difficult circumstances often benefit from talking to people their own age. A support group for teens coping with their parents’ divorce could be especially helpful if your child seems to have trouble adjusting or has been hesitant about discussing their feelings.
- Ask your child’s pediatrician for a referral or look online for a local teen support group.
- It’s normal to feel worried or afraid about how divorce will affect your child. While it’s difficult at first, most children adjust well within 1 to 2 years. Typically, children experience more difficulty when their parents remain in a dysfunctional marriage.
Video: Mass Appeal How to make divorce less stressful for children
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