How to help your children through the ups and downs of your separation and divorce

Part 1, Part 2

This is part 2 of this article about helping your children cope with separation and divorce. If you've landed here first, do jump over to part 1 to learn about the factors that will play a part in how your children are able manage during this turbulent time.

Are your children taking sides?

It can happen that one or more of your children appears to 'take sides' with you or your (ex)partner. It’s distressing of course if your children reject you at any time. You’re already struggling from the effects of the separation and divorce. Thus it can even be more galling if your children appear to shun you in favour of your ex.

It's natural for children to want a relationship with their parents - if they feel safe. If you feel your children seem to reject you, it may be that you or your ex are putting too much pressure on them. Children will have their own opinion of what’s happening. And it’s unlikely to be based on the ‘reality’ as you see it.

Here is how you or your partner may be contributing to the problem. Your children may be taking sides because one of you (or both of you)...

  • prevents the child from seeing their other parent, OR...
  • won't allow the child to see their other parent with his or her new partner (often very understandably so, if either one of you has quickly ‘swapped’ one partner for another!)
  • fails to communicate important information about the child to the other parent
  • causes arguments over child support
  • has had an affair, and so the child takes the side of the parent who’s been hurt
  • use them as a weapon or bargaining tool in the divorce process.

After a period of rejection children may try hard to re-establish the contact though.

Image quote: However challenging the situation, however sad you feel, remember: you're in the process of teaching your children how to deal with life's dramas.

Is it best to let your children choose?

6 Things you need to keep in mind...

  1. It's important for you to get to know your children as they are now - not as they were 'back then' before the divorce. This is especially important when you’re making choices from now on.

  2. Giving your children a little age-appropriate control can help them. You’ll know what they’re capable of, and what’s realistic to expect of them. Giving them the choice of where they want to live is too much control (save perhaps for older teenagers). 

  3. Children are aware of their parents’ wishes, likes and dislikes. They are also easily led, 'bought', or ‘convinced’ in any other way by either one or both of you. But they're often aware of the consequences for the other parent or carer.

  4. You’ll need to carefully consider the impact of asking your children to choose who they’d like to take to an event. ‘Making’ them choose between you or your ex can lead to all kinds of emotional turmoil.

  5. They need to feel that you both love and want them, regardless of your personal loyalties and the problems in your relationship.

  6. They need you both to take an active interest in their well-being throughout the process of separation and divorce, and thereafter

As children mature, their insight into the relationship dynamic deepens. They're likely to discover if one parent has deliberately made it difficult for them to develop a relationship with the other. They will know when your choices and/or the choices you appeared to leave to them were influenced primarily by self-interest.

Other reactions

There are a few more important factors to understand about your children's potential reactions. Let's take a look at those first before we get to how you can deal with your children’s possible fears.

1. Children may misbehave (more than they usually do)

Your children’s behaviour may deteriorate due to the extra pressures on the family. Often they’re well aware that they’re misbehaving. They may even feel guilty for the way they have treated one or both parents. They may think they're letting you down, for example, by not achieving in school. They may realise that they're adding distress by being 'difficult', yet can't help themselves.

2. Could your children be blaming themselves?

The breakup of your relationship can be just as upsetting for teenagers. They have a greater understanding of feelings and relationships. Teenagers can have definite views of 'who is to blame'. They, like the younger ones, may feel that they themselves are in some way to blame.

3. Children grieve too

Children, like adults, can go through various stages of grieving too. They're mourning the loss of the family life they've always known. They grieve for the loss of the reassuring presence of two parents or carers. That is, of course, if indeed that presence was safe and reassuring.

4. 'It is not happening'

It's quite common for children to be in denial. Hence the effects of divorce on your children may seem to be minimal. This denial is your child's coping strategy.  If he or she thinks it is not happening then, in their mind, it won't happen.

5. Mum and dad will get back together

Your child may harbour the notion that the two of you will somehow reunite and all will be well.  This can happen - many a lawyer will vouch for that, but I'm assuming this isn't a possibility for you. Thus it's important to make sure that your kids understand the finality of it all.

How to talk to children about divorce

How do you tell your children that you're going to divorce?

Telling your children about the impending family breakdown - how will you do that? It's likely to be one of the most difficult conversations you'll ever have with them. Ideally, you’ll arrange to do it with your ex-partner. I realise though that this isn't always possible, or even desirable.

5 Tips to help you tell your children

  1. Time your conversation right - don't wait too long! It can prevent them having to ask difficult questions when you're ill-prepared. Children are smart and can soon know there's something amiss.  
  2. Decide in advance which of your children can be together when you tell them. Don't tell one and ask them to keep it secret from another. 
  3. Take your time. Don't squeeze the conversation into a tight spot.
  4. Allow your children to react in their own way - provided they're safe. This is not the time to expect a 'normal' reaction or to chastise them.
  5. Prepare yourself for further questions later in the day and at bed-time. Make yourself available, if at all possible, and take the time to address them.

The emotional turmoil

The reality of the situation may take a little time to take hold. Your children are vulnerable during this stage. Your observation and communication is essential.

Fear is one of the key effects of the breakdown of family relations and divorce. You may worry about your future, but your children do too.  And, as I mentioned before, your kids have little control over the situation. They fear the unknown in particular:

  • Who will I live with?
  • Will I have to move home and/or school?
  • Will my parents get new partners?
  • Do I have to, or will I be able to, visit mum or dad?
  • Do I have to spend time with dad’s/mum’s new partner
  • Do I have to kiss dad’s/mum’s new partner
  • Can he or she tell me what to do?
  • Will I still be able to see my friends?
  • Will my birthday party be cancelled?
  • Are we still going on holiday?

Younger children may not comprehend the magnitude of what's happening. Teenagers can fret night and day about what their peers think.

I suspect you share some of their fears. You're likely dealing with similar emotions.  I know it can be a struggle for you as the parent to hold it together. That's okay under the circumstances - with time it will all settle down.

It's important to treat your children's fears with respect as they are all too real to them. Address their fears directly, and help them to deal with the fears as much as you can.

Reassure your child of your love often. It will enable them to see that there are things that are constant and remain strong.

Part 1, Part 2

Related Articles

How to Choose a Divorce Lawyer
How to Divorce
Problem Solving Strategies
Getting over a Relationship
Dealing with Infidelity
How to Get over Someone

Other Helpful Links

Wiley Online Library - The long-term effects of parental divorce on the mental health of young adults

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