There is no question that divorce impacts a child’s feelings of stability and emotional well-being. Many parents are committed to navigating through the divorce process in a way that minimizes the negative effects on their children’s lives.
In fact, it may be surprising to learn that for many children, the end of a broken marriage can actually be a relief, especially when there is a lot of conflict in the broken marriage. You can help your children adapt to the changes in your family by giving them the tools they need for healthy adjustment.
Below is a general outline of some of the ways that children can experience the stress of divorce, and what parents can do to help their children through the transition.
Babies can feel tension but can’t understand the reasoning behind it. If this tension is persistent, the resulting stress can lead to your baby feeling irritable, clingy, and in the worst case they may regress and show signs of developmental delays.
How You Can Help
- Maintain consistency and routine to provide familiarity and comfort to your little ones.
- Coordinate the baby’s schedule with your ex to make sure similar schedules are maintained at both households.
- Make sure familiar “lovies,” such as blankies and stuffed animals, travel with the infant between parents.
- Equip each home with all of baby’s necessities, such as diapers, clothing and feeding aids.
- Continue with enrichment and social activities for your infant as much as possible, and make it a priority to spend quality time with them.
Toddlers (18 months-3 Years)
Toddlers are naturally self-centered, and because they have a strong attachment to parents at this age, they may exhibit strong outbursts of crying at times of separation. Separation anxiety is normal at this developmental age, and so know that this is not unique to children of divorce.
How You Can Help
- Be patient and reinforce the need to spend quality time with the other parent.
- Remember that it is developmentally normal for separation anxiety to fluctuate between parents, and don’t take it personally.
- If the separation anxiety at transfers of possession is extreme, find ways to exchange possession away from the parent with whom the child is exhibiting the stronger attachment. For example, have one parent drop off the child at the child care provider, and have the other parent pick up. Or, have a family member such as a grandparent assist with the exchanges. If you are the receiving parent when the child has calmed down after the exchange, reach out and let the other parent know that all is well.
- Establishing consistent routines becomes even more important for toddlers – whenever possible make sure bedtime, bath time, and discipline are consistent in both households.
- Toddlers need their lovies, too! These items will help comfort the toddler through transitions, so make sure their lovies go with them and return to you.
- Special one-on-one time is crucial at this stage. Plan fun activities or outings to let them just have fun, be a child and leave the stress of divorce behind for a bit.
Young Kids (3-6 Years)
Separation can also be hard for preschoolers, who have much more awareness and insight into the changes happening in their family.
Preschoolers may even feel responsible for the separation, could internalize anger, fear, and anxieties, and may suffer from nightmares. (Nightmares are also developmentally prevalent at this age regardless of a child’s home situation, so don’t always assume they are divorce-related.)
How You Can Help
- Recognize that preschoolers deal with stress by exhibiting irritability, defiance, disrupted sleep patterns, and clinginess. Be patient and help them work through these very natural feelings. It is okay to be sad/mad/etc., and this is an opportunity to help them learn how to handle those emotions appropriately.
- Locate some age-appropriate books that may be helpful in identifying and managing their emotions.
- Talking to someone, such as a play therapist who is skilled at working with young children in divorce, can be invaluable if you feel it’s needed.
- Remember not to overshare with your children regarding the divorce; children this age have a very limited intellectual and emotional capacity to comprehend adult-level problems. Sharing too much with your children can lead to heightened anxiety, fear, and stress. Keep information to simple, age-appropriate matters and to information that they truly need to know. What they really need to know is that they are loved and safe.
Older Kids (7-11 years)
Children at this stage are very aware of the strains on marriage and the increased stress in the household, and often identify themselves (incorrectly) as the cause.
They often can settle on anger and rebellion as an outlet for their anxiety, which can lead to discipline problems at school. An inability to focus is also common in this age-group as they struggle to manage conflicting emotions and changing circumstances.
How You Can Help
- Be patient and consistent in your approach to discipline, while reassuring them with words and actions that you’re there to help them work through this challenging time.
- Make time to give them experiences with both parents to reinforce parental relationships, and reassure them that they are and always will be loved by both parents.
- If they experience discipline issues at school, consider letting the teacher know about the divorce so they can be aware of the significant life change the child is experiencing; this will help the teacher coordinate an appropriate approach with you, so the child knows behavior expectations and sources of support at both school and at home.
- Don’t force them to talk (children at this age internalize), but let them know you are ready to talk whenever they are.
- Listen with an open mind to their concerns, resisting the urge to “fix” them. Often it is enough to let them express themselves without a response from you, other than to let them know you appreciate their sharing their feelings.
- Continue to make sure their social activities stay as much the same as possible. Letting them just “be a kid” away from the situation can do wonders as an emotional release from stress.
- As mentioned in the age-group above, don’t over-share. It may be tempting to talk with children of this age about the struggles you and your ex are going through, but doing so can do much harm. You don’t want to damage their relationship with the other parent, who the children see like half of themselves. They will be struggling with divided loyalties, and don’t need to complicate those emotions by knowing details about the divorce.
Pre-teen/teenagers have heightened awareness of family situations. This stage is rife with withdrawal, fear, anger, and anxiety regardless of divorce, and divorce certainly can magnify these emotions.
It is developmentally normal for teenagers to withdraw and not to communicate their feelings. Even in households with two parents in a solid marriage, they may test the waters by making statements about preferring one parent over the other.
Likewise, they may attempt to manipulate their parents by playing them against each other; this is also typical of this age regardless of their family make-up.
Divorce can amplify this trait. Divided loyalties can be expressed by way of passionately coming to the defense of a parent they feel is being unfairly treated.
How You Can Help
- Let them know you are available to talk when they are ready, but don’t force them to share.
- Don’t take it personally, either, if they express a preference for the other parent; often waiting a bit will reveal that they’ve shifted their preference back to you (for a while). This can part of their attempts to deal with understandably divided loyalties. Maintain neutrality and continue to encourage a relationship with both parents (and both sets of grandparents as well, if applicable).
- Stay strong and united with your ex where your children are concerned, to the extent possible. Don’t be baited into a power play created by your children.
- Maintain as much consistency as possible in their social and extracurricular activities. Blowing off steam with their friends can help them learn to manage stress in healthy ways.
- Realize their withdrawal from you is part of your child’s attempt to navigate both their growing independence (as a normal part of this stage of development) as well as their new family structure.
- See the suggestion above about over-sharing. Children of divorce have their struggles and stressors and don’t need that compounded by taking on yours.
- Make time to plan outings or events with your children that appeal to them to allow you to maintain a connection outside of what’s happening with the divorce. You are still a family, although it’s structured differently now. It’s also a chance for you to put away the worries and have fun making a memory with your children, which is always a good thing.
Children of all ages will take their cues from their parents. Divorce is hard. It is crucial that you practice self-care, so your (understandable) stress is not passed along to your children. You recognize the importance of caring for and helping your children through this process, or you probably wouldn’t have read this far!
How You Can Help
- Surround yourself with a support system: Friends, family, spiritual advisors, therapists, support groups. Ask for help.
- Maintain your social connections and activities, and focus on other things to talk about and do.
- Find a service opportunity; helping others can be a great balm.
- Take care to get rest, eat well, stay physically active, and find healthy ways to de-stress.
- Consider counseling for yourself. Divorce is a big life change, and it’s not unexpected to need help navigating your turbulent emotions.
- See our blog about Minimizing Conflict and Maximizing Calm [here].
- When confronted with a stressful situation involving your child, take a breath, and determine what’s truly best for them. Often, a simple hug and a kiss will do wonders for you both!
At any age and stage, all members of the family may benefit from counseling to help them deal with the feelings they are experiencing through the divorce transition and to help them know what’s okay and what’s not okay.
Young children can benefit from a therapist experienced in play therapy. Older children may benefit from a therapist accustomed to working with teens.
Those families with a strong faith may benefit from a minister or pastor or a faith-based therapist. What is important is that you find the right therapist who knows the specific challenges presented by your family with your divorce, who your family members feel comfortable with, who knows and understands the legal system, and who abides by their professional ethics and licensing requirements.
At Hargrave Family Law we are dedicated to downsizing disruption and maximizing support in our clients’ lives and families.
If you’re preparing for your divorce, and are committed to helping your children adjust to your new family life after divorce, give us a call. We’re here to help.