How to minimise the effect of a family breakup and divorce on your children
Divorce! 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
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, I recommend you connect with a professional, online counsellor. For further information on how that works see my page: Online Relationship Breakup Advice.
Before all else...
Is it really too late to save your relationship?
If you're unsure about breaking up, then please consider taking my marriage compatibility 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, I recommend you get my Loving Communication Kit for Couples. It has a bundle of serious and fun relationship-saving, action-packed and solution focussed resources.
The effects of separation and divorce on children of all ages
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.
Divorce affects each child and each age group in a different way, but there are some common factors:
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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! :-)
Please, rate this article ...
I really hope this article is of help to you. :-)
I frequently update my articles based on feedback, therefore I really value your vote.
Thank you so much in anticipation. :-)
Other helpful links
Emery on divorce - The Children's Bill of Rights in Divorce