Helping Children Cope With The Stress of Divorce

Divorce can be a traumatic experience for children. Whether their initial reaction is shock, anger, worry, sadness or frustration, there are a variety of things parents can do to encourage their children to cope and move forward successfully through this transition.
Parents’ recognition of their ability to impact their children towards a healthy transition, or instead, towards stress throughout the transition of divorce, is beneficial to understand. The parents’ efforts to assure their children’s level of stress are contained, rather than continued needs to be a focus.
Some important areas to be aware of and address are:
Parents want to believe their children will get “over” the divorce quickly. It is helpful for them to be aware of the fact they are always “ahead” of the children when it comes to adjusting to the divorce. Allowing children time and opportunities to talk about their feelings and progress through grieving the loss of their family unit is necessary. A therapist may also assist children in the process of working through this time.
Many parents often see the option of drastic changes for purposes of a ‘fresh start’ being beneficial. They make the mistake of trying too quickly to acclimate their children to new homes, schedules, values, caregivers, or even partners. Extreme changes in children’s lives can magnify their sense of loss as well as initiate greater anxiety. Creating too much change early on demands multiple adjustments beyond the loss of the family unit and jeopardizes their successful transition.
It is not unusual for a child(ren) to obsess over the parent they miss. Kids’ who have the opportunity for healthy contact with each parent are less likely to be damaged by the divorce. Permission from both parents to continue to love and be involved with the other parent is important. Understand that no one will ever replace either of you in your children’s lives.
Many times, it is a parent’s response to refrain from cooperating or communicating with their ex. Even when couples voice a desire for amicably, often their good intentions do not survive the process. Issues such as jealousy, competition for kids’ love, and resentment over past hurts are at the crux of often poor choices, such as resisting the other parent’s time or plans with the kids, withholding appropriate and/or required financial assistance, or thwarting a reasonable request for an accommodation with parenting time. These choices create stress, rather than promote stability for their children.
Children very much need to experience reprieve, and see there can be life past the divorce. Substantial continuing conflict results in hope for this being lost. Children are healthier emotionally when a minimal degree of conflict exists between their parents. Over time, they will more often respect a parent who supports the other parent, and lose respect for a parent who resists or ‘badmouths’ the other parent.
Past the divorce, working towards the ability to carry on as parents, rather than partners, requires transition. Children do not expect their parents to be friends, but do appreciate and benefit from their civility. A parent’s ability to be in the vicinity of one another, to speak to one another without issue, and to speak supportively of the other, promotes security and significantly reduces the child’s stress level.
Work to meet on “common ground” with your ex. No one else will appreciate discussion and information about your children as much as the two of you. Be able to talk about your children, laugh about them, discuss memories about them, etc. It will be good for your soul.
A parent’s consideration of the following questions is helpful transitioning to a working relationship with the other parent –
1) What kind of divorced couple do you want to be?
Do you really want to be one of ‘those’ parents who cannot sit/stand in the vicinity of my child at an event…or ‘that’ divorced couple who speaks negatively about one another to all who will listen? Do you want your children to worry about you creating scenes at future graduation(s), weddings, etc.? Do you want to live in competition for your children’s attention or loyalty, or be consumed with ‘outdoing’ the other? Do you want your kids to stress about every word which they say (or don’t say) about the ‘other’ parent/side of the family? Do you want your children to hide or even lie about their feelings about the other in some effort to protect or please you?

2) What example are you setting for your children, in terms of forgiveness, consideration, and respect in your interaction with the other parent/family? Remember, permitting and modeling continued conflictual interaction teaches children this behavior is an option for their future family relationships, including their relationship with you.

3) Does your anger and conflict feel good? Is your behavior in line with the ‘best version’ of you? Is there a possibility you might later ‘regret’ your choices? Practicing interaction and choices which are the ‘right’ thing rather than the ‘easy’ thing will be powerful in your own recovery and efforts to move forward.

4) What are you personally doing to work towards co-parenting? What is your role and responsibility in getting to a working parenting relationship, post-divorce? You have to want to get along with each other People who want to, make allowances to do so.
Understand that divorce is very often one of, or even the most difficult time in both the parent’s and their children’s lives. Doing your best will be obvious to your children! They do not expect perfection from you, and understand, you cannot expect that from them, either. This will be a process for all of you. Therapy for you as a parent, going through this adjustment, may be a worthwhile consideration. Your own healthy transition, and theirs, is possible!

Written by: Jill Hogenson, LMSW, ACSW