How a relationship breakup and divorce can affect your children

Helping your children get through a family breakup and thrive again

During this turbulent time, it’s all too easy for you to consider your children's needs last. The impact of a divorce can be one of the most life-changing and distressing things that will happen to them. Your separation and divorce can affect them long after you and your ex have moved on. It makes no difference how old your children are. Adult children too can feel devastated by their parents' divorce. However, they at least can help themselves.

Yet, as adults, you have the power to minimise your children’s distress now and in the longer term. You can prevent or reduce any negative consequences.

I'm therefore particularly chuffed that you're here. And that you're keen to learn more about the effects of the breakup on your children. And what the consequences of your decisions can be for them.

I want to help you understand what you can do to help your children get through the process in the best possible way.

Let’s start with a look at the ‘landscape’...

17.5% of children lose contact with the other parent

Statistic: Reasons no legal agreements could be established for custodial parents in the United States in 2014 | Statista

10 Factors that determine how your children are likely to fare during your separation and divorce

  1. The child's age dictates what they're able to understand, how much you can tell them and how you'll dress it up.
  2. The way you and your ex approach the ending - a civilised one beats a 'divorce-by-force'. A long, ugly, legal battle comes with financial, energetic and emotional costs, with consequences for kids
  3. The way in which you as parents, or carers, communicate with each other. What do the children see, hear and feel when you and your ex discuss the situation?
  4. The way your children normally handle any changes. Are they naturally anxious or are they relatively confident whenever they face a new situation?
  5. Whether you make it 'okay' for your children to love the other parent. Don't let any of your jealousy (however understandable) get in the way of them loving their mum, dad or other carer.
  6. What your children make of conversations they've overheard. Think about your chats with friends and family on the phone, or your whispered conversations when they visit.
  7. How friends and family react and talk about the breakup of your relationship or marriage. Are they determined to wade in with their opinion or do they ‘just’ listen with empathy?
  8. What other pressures they’re already under - at school, at home, with their friends.
  9. How much loving support and understanding they get from you and other important people.
  10. How much control they have and what choices they face - depending on their age. Do they have to choose where they live? Can they have a little control over who they spend their time with?
Pictogram: However scared you are now, however much you're hurting - you ARE going to be okay again.

How to make the process 'more manageable' for your children

You're facing so many choices that involve your children too. So, it's important to keep their best interests in the forefront of your mind. This will also help you to explain your choices to them whenever the occasion arises. Your confidence will reassure them and is likely to make the process more manageable for them. You too are likely to feel better if you see your children cope and adjust. That, in turn, will also be of benefit to your children.

When you’re feeling okay, you’ll have more time, energy and patience for your children. Thus it’s paramount that you take care of yourself too. Let’s face it - a happier, more patient mum or dad is likely to make for more contented children. They'll feel better and are likely to recover and flourish - despite the circumstances.

I know, from personal as well as professional experience, that can be tough. So I understand you may want to talk to an expert - someone not connected with the circumstances. It’s best to find someone local to you. If you have no access to services where you are, you can always chat with one of the online experts via my website. Just click here. (I want to be upfront with you: it’s a paid service.)

Sign: LOST CHILDRENYou can help your children NOT to feel lost

Before all else...
Is it really too late to save your relationship?

If you're unsure about breaking up, then please consider taking my relationship test. It can help you to make sure you're making the right decision. Maybe you do need to separate, but perhaps there is a chance you can rebuild your relationship. You'll need to know what the real problem is though, not what you think it is. The test is a great aid to help you figure it out.

Second and third marriages have a 67 - 80% chance of ending in divorce. So, it really can be worth fighting for what you have now. Remember: the grass is not greener on the other side of the hill, but where you water it!

If your partner is less inclined to put in the effort and you feel like you're doing all the work, have a look at How to Save Your Marriage by Lee Baucom, PhD. Baucom developed a blueprint for repairing relationships. He made sure it could be effective even if one of the partners appears to have no interest in trying any longer.

The effects of separation and divorce on children of all ages

Children's drawing about family breakupThis is how your children too may see the breakup! The good news is, though, that you CAN minimise the damage!

Unfortunately it's a fact of life that parental break-ups are common. Most children will be aware of others who are part of a multi-layered or 'blended' family. They may have had several step-fathers or mothers. They could have several step-sisters, step-brothers, half-sisters and half-brothers.

Considering your children's needs can be challenging. It's even more difficult with such a complex family situation. Aim to make it as manageable as possible by having a considered parenting plan.

Children can react in lots of different ways to the news that their parents are separating. Their behaviour and mood can also change at any time during the whole process.

I'm aiming to give you an overview of how your children might be feeling. I hope that the following information gives you the know-how to support them at this painful time.

It's complicated!

Divorce affects each child and each age group in a different way, but there are some common factors:

12 factors that play a role in your children's reaction

  1. Emotional age, rather than their date of birth
  2. The quality of their relationship with you
  3. The quality of their relationship with your partner
  4. Their relationship with their siblings
  5. Any significant health issues
  6. Any significant developmental issues (often linked with health problems)
  7. Any other significant - from their point of view - childhood adversity
  8. Traits, personality, character
  9. Friendship circle - or lack of it
  10. Their relationship with members of their extended family
  11. The relationship history with you (their parents)
  12. The nature of any previous relationship or marital break-ups they have experienced

Children of all ages can be unsettled by the loss of consistency and constant change that divorce brings. But, the effect on smaller children is more severe, as they are less able to soothe themselves. Self-soothing is a life-skill that - under the right circumstances - develops with age.

It's particularly important that the arrangements you make for your children’s care are 'set in stone'.  Arrangements which are or become inconsistent, 'punishing' and irregular have a detrimental effect. The consequences of that inconsistency are lack of trust and learned helplessness (they learn that their wishes are not important, and stop 'bothering'). Those circumstances are likely to increase the risk of your children suffering long-term.

I understand how difficult it can be to deal with it all. And you may feel that you're on your own with no-one ‘safe’ to talk to. I can so understand that. Therefore I have made it possible for you to talk to a professional, licensed therapist - online and in confidence. For further information, please see my page on online (relationship) counselling.

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.

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.

For further tips and advice ...

See also my articles:

For more articles on divorce see: Related Articles further down.

Other reactions and effects

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 - or appear 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.

Boys (and men - in general) in particular can feel distraught - possibly even more so than their female counterparts. However, they're likely to find it harder to deal with their emotions and can be quick to shut them off. Often boys and men 'disappear' - literally or figuratively.

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.

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.

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.

What causes 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.

Finally

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.

Most of all, be sure to take good care of yourself too! :-)

Free printable download

Download the printable PDF of How Children Are Affected by Divorce for free!

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Related articles

Divorce Advice for Men
How to Improve Your Self-esteem
Divorce Tips
How to Get over A Relationship

Other helpful links

Emery on divorce - The Children's Bill of Rights in Divorce

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