Divorce can get messy, and often escalates into ugly battles over property and custody. Children can easily get caught in-between. Even in the most amicable of divorces, many of them blame themselves for not ‘keeping Mom and Dad together.’ Others are terrified of the changes that lie ahead. Their family life has changed forever, and they worry about what will happen and feel powerless to stop it.
Here are some ways to help your child cope with a divorce. Ideally, you and your ex can at least agree to make things easier for them. You may no longer be husband and wife, but you will always be Mom and Dad—and your kids need you now, more than ever.
1. Don’t lie or give false assurances.
It’s counterproductive to paint a pretty but unrealistic picture. ‘Dad’s just going to work in another city,’ or ‘Oh, things will be wonderful! Don’t worry!’ You don’t help your child process his feelings, and actually dismiss his fears. Plus, once your child catches on, he’ll feel even worse about being lied to. (Wouldn’t you?)
You need to help your child trust you, and telling the truth is the start. ‘Mom and Dad won’t be living in the same house anymore, but we both love you and we’ll always be part of your lives.’ If they ask questions, answer as honestly but as objectively as you can. If they say, ‘Why did you break up?’ don’t say, ‘Because your Dad is a jerk.’ Say, ‘We fight a lot about very important things. We tried very hard but it just isn’t working out.’
2. Tell them that they’re not responsible.
Some kids worry that they caused the divorce. This is very common among pre-schoolers, who don’t really understand what’s going on and may believe that something they did ‘sent Mom or Dad away.’ It’s very important to let them know that they didn’t do anything wrong, and that the divorce is an ‘adult’ decision.
Of course, with this age, actions speak louder than words. It’s really important for kids to get quality time with both parents. If your husband moves out and doesn’t call them for weeks, they’ll naturally think that ‘Daddy’s mad at me’ or ‘Daddy doesn’t care about me anymore.’
3. Let them express what they feel.
It’s tough to listen to our kids cry, express confusing feelings or big concerns, without rushing in with solutions or comforting words. As loving parents, we just want to make ‘the pain go away.’ However, they need to be able to say what they feel and think, without being interrupted or ‘hushed.’ Be patient and give them undivided attention as they talk—or occasionally lash out. Let them know that you’re there for them, and that you respect what they feel.
You can also find a way for your children to go through counseling. Sometimes it’s easier to open up to a stranger. Trained professionals can also help them process their feelings, or work out anger or resentment in safe and healthy ways.
4. Assure them that their feelings are ‘normal.’
Older kids can try to suppress their anger, grief and confusion because they need to ‘be strong’ or they want to be ‘good kids’ and not upset their parents. In many cases, the eldest will feel the pressure to hold the family together, taking care of siblings because they’ve been told ‘you’re the man of the house now’ or ‘take good care of your mom.’
However, kids need to be kids—and kids need to feel that whatever they feel is perfectly okay. You are still the ‘adult’ in the house, and you can still be their rock. They can turn to you for support and encouragement whenever they’re afraid or upset.
5. Address fears of the future.
Some kids may worry what will happen to them. Where will they live? Will they have enough food to eat or clothes to wear? Some may also wonder what will happen now that Dad isn’t around to ‘protect’ them from burglars or fires, or bring them to soccer practice. Assure them that they will be okay, that you have a plan for emergencies, and that though some things will change they will still be safe and comfortable.
6. Ask them about friends with divorced parents.
This will give you an idea of their fears, concerns and assumptions. It can help them feel that other families have been through divorce. However do let them know that just because a neighbor never sees his dad, or a friend always fights with his mom, doesn’t mean that you’ll have the same problem. ‘Every family is different, but whatever happens we’ll face it together and try to find a way to make it easier for everyone.’
7. Buy books that help kids through divorce.
There are many books that help children face a divorce. They use age-appropriate language and images, and help explain important facts and find the words for what they feel or fear. One great book for kids aged four to eight years old is ‘It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear: A Read-Together Book for Parents and Children’ by Vicki Lansky. It even has a page of illustrations of facial expressions so pre-schoolers can just point to what they feel.