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Helping Children Handle the Emotional Impact of Divorce

“All children of divorce experience some pain and loss from the breakup of their parents’ marriage. This is not negotiable or preventable” says Dr Lisa René Reynolds, a therapist specialising in families going through divorce.

Importantly and encouragingly she continues, “Parents are largely in control of how much divorce will hurt their children.” In her opinion the way in which parents handle their divorce is far more important than how old their children are when it takes place.

Coping with the Emotional Side of Divorce

You model behaviour for your child. That means how you manage your divorce in the long and short term and how you behave with your ex-spouse can be an example to your children of how to cope with conflict, pain, and expressing negative emotion. 

 Taking this into consideration, Dr Reynolds, author of Still a Family: A Guide to Good Parenting Through Divorce suggests:

- Showing your own emotional reaction to a divorce including disappointment or sadness could help validate what your child may be experiencing. Be honest and let them know that feelings of anger, fear sadness, depression and confusion are all normal. 

- You need to be direct in telling your children that any reaction they have, in the long or short term, is acceptable. So that means not criticising the emotion when, for example, a child tells you they hate you for ruining their life. The distinction you can draw, if necessary, is that all feelings are valid but not all ways of expressing them are equally acceptable.

- Talking is not always the best way of coping. Depending on age, help your child to channel their emotional energy by doing and playing e.g. through physical play, artwork or a diary. This includes dealing with missing the other parent – they might write a letter or make a picture for them.

- Plan on having ongoing conversations about the divorce over the years to come no matter what age your children are when it happens. What you need to discuss and want to say may change over time. Saying that you love them and always will, and that the divorce is not their fault are among the important reassurances you many need to repeat to children many times. Children of divorce also need affirmation from parents that the concept of commitment and a loving relationship is not a sham.

Avoid your Child becoming a Parent/Adult Prematurely

A particular problem that Dr René Reynolds warns against is letting your child take on a parenting role after the divorce. On this point, Dr Reynolds says parents should be very careful not to play on their child’s emotions including their feelings of sympathy or protectiveness. It places unnecessary responsibility on the child.

This particularly applies to teenagers. Dr René Reynolds warns, “Don’t see your adolescents as almost adults and share too much with them. They are only children learning about adult issues….There are countless ways that teens may take on adult responsibility with their parents, especially when a parent is in a fragile state, which is often the case during (and after) divorce.”

Dr Reynolds writes that parents going through divorce should “Let your child know that you appreciate their efforts to care for you but make sure you are giving the message ‘I want and enjoy you’ rather than ‘I need you’ to your children.”

A Final Suggestion:

Take care to stay as emotionally close to your children as possible. Psychologist John Gottman , author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, advises parents to “Stay engaged in the details of your children’s everyday lives. The secret to buffering kids from the negative effects of…conflict is to stay emotionally available to them. This requires paying attention to the everyday, mundane incidents that give rise to their emotions. Such issues may have very little to do with your marital problems. Life goes on for kids even when their parents are distracted by adult issues.

Kids need their parents to be emotionally close, and they especially need them close during times of family upheaval.”