How to Help Your Children Through a Painful Divorce
These tips for helping your children cope when you’re getting a divorce will make the transition to your “new normal” much easier. A reader inspired me to write this article; she asked how to help her kids through a separation and divorce initiated by her husband…
“About 6 weeks ago my husband, whom I’ve been with for 23 years, told me that he didn’t want to be married to me anymore,” says Samantha on How to Cope When Your Husband Leaves You for Her. “He’s unhappy with me and his job. He’s leaving me, our children and leaving his job and considering moving from our home in Canada to the USA. A few days later it came out that my husband met another women online and he’s going to be with her in Ohio. I’m working hard to accept that our marriage was not in a good place. I’ve not been happy for years. What angered me is that we didn’t try and work things out, and now that my husband wants a divorce it’s too late. The worst part is he’s leaving the children. He’s ok with only seeing them once a month and a couple of weeks a year. I’m going to be a full time single parent. This angers me. I know people who are divorced but have 50/50 custody. The children only know that we are separating and we will be selling the house and staying in the same schools. I don’t know how they will react to him actually leaving the country. He’s such a optimist that he thinks it will be great! Yet my husband won’t even be around to help our children get through the hurt of our separation and divorce. Have you got any advice on how to help my children cope with the separation and divorce once my husband is actually gone?”
My friend (I’ll call her Sandy) went through almost exactly the same separation process four years ago. The sad and depressing part, however, is that she and her ex-husband are still going through a miserable and mean divorce process. Theirs is a bitter, expensive, painful divorce that has ripped their family apart in many ways. Not “just” Sandy, her husband (let’s name him Danny), and their kids…but their extended family is also divided and devastated by the way Sandy and Danny are handling the divorce.
The best tip for helping your children cope when you’re getting a divorce is for you to grow as emotionally and spiritually healthy as possible. You need to get and stay strong, positive, and powerful so you don’t let the bitterness and destruction of divorce ruin your children’s childhoods.
Helping Your Kids Cope When You’re Getting Divorced
My “divorce advice” is based on my experience with Sandy and Danny’s painful divorce process. I grew up with divorce – my mother was divorced, my grandmother was divorced, and my sister is divorced. Each of those women rolled with divorce as if it was just another fact of life. They barely blinked an eye, and they weren’t tainted by bitterness or disappointment.
I grew up thinking that coping with divorce as a child isn’t all that painful or difficult – but only because the adults around me handled divorce as if it was just another stage of life or transition to a new normal.
Divorce doesn’t have to be devastating. Yes, it’s painful and heartbreaking. It is something to be grieved and endured, not celebrated or enjoyed. But getting divorced doesn’t have to be the worst experience in your child’s life – or your life. It really is how you and your ex-husband handle the divorce process that will change your kid’s life.
Getting a divorce may be unavoidable, but you can learn how to help your children through the grief and pain if you stay healthy, mindful, and disciplined. Here’s how.
Take time every morning to journal
How will writing in your private journal help your children cope with the transition to divorce? By helping you get grounded and emotionally stable. A journal is a conversation with yourself, and if you take 30 minutes ever morning, you will find answers in your mind, spirit and soul that you didn’t know you had. You’ll learn that the breakdown of your marriage wasn’t your fault, and that you will survive this. You will learn that you are stronger than you think and wiser than you know.
“I found journaling cathartic after a terrible breakup,” writes Rachel Sussman in The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce. “I suggest you buy a notebook or journal and write in it daily. You can write absolutely anything you feel like. Let your thoughts spill onto the blank page.”
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Drawing on hundreds of counseling sessions Sussman conducted with women at all stages of recovery, she developed a proven 3-phase process for healing from a breakup. The Breakup Bible takes women through Healing, Understanding, and Transformation, with new perspectives and advice from real, healed women at each step.
Ask yourself the questions that keep rolling around in your mind. Journaling is free form writing about whatever you think and feel; it’s especially helpful if you’re dealing with depression after the breakup. Eventually, you will find yourself healing from the pain of getting a divorce. You will find your own answers for helping your children cope with the divorce pain, and you will realize that you are better equipped to deal with this than you first thought.
Grieve your loss – and your children’s losses
Getting a divorce is painful. You need to grieve your loss. You lost your husband, your lifestyle, your expectations of the future. You are learning how expensive and destructive divorce is, and you feel betrayed and heartbroken. Divorce is terrible even under the most amicable and pleasant circumstances.
Learn how to grieve in healthy ways. This is how you heal: you accept the pain of divorce and you allow the grieving process to take as long as it takes. And this is how you will help your children cope with the pain of getting divorced: you will teach them how to grieve, and you will encourage them to find their own ways to grieve and let go of their heartbreak. Tell your children that divorce is painful and is breaking your heart. Tell them that you are grieving and healing, and that you will help them grieve and heal, too.
Don’t let your emotions overwhelm and control you
For four years I’ve been watching Sandy contribute to the devastation and negative effects of her divorce on her children.
She is forcing her kids to take sides, she is causing problems between them, and she is waging war between them and their father. She is allowing her toxic bitterness and resentment to rule every decision she makes. She is lying to the courts, her ex-husband, and her children. She is consumed by her pain…and she is allowing her pain to consume everyone she talks to about getting divorced.
And she knows it. She says she can’t help it. She hates her ex-husband so much that she no longer cares about helping her children through the divorce process. In fact, she is turning her bitterness and resentment onto her children. And do you think this is helping her kids cope with the family’s divorce process?
Work towards growing emotionally healthy and strong
The healthier you are, the better your children will cope with divorce in healthy ways. You are powerful! You have more control over your kids’ health, perspective, choices, and attitudes than you know. If you deal with your resentment, bitterness, anger, hurt, frustration, and confusion in healthy ways, you have already started helping your kids through the divorce process.
So, I ask you: how will you take care of your emotional health through the divorce process? Tell me three ways you’ll help yourself heal. You might even share how your ways of coping will help your children through the divorce process. For example, if you journal every day about your questions and fears, your kids might see you write and pick up their own journals. Or maybe you’ll share what you wrote – or you’ll find yourself starting the day with peace and calm instead of fear and anxiety…and your children will start their day with peace and calm, too.
Decide how you will present your divorce to your children
It is so important to choose your words carefully when you’re helping children through the transition of separation and divorce. The beauty of getting healthy emotionally, however, is that you will find it much easier to focus on the positive! You will naturally become more optimistic and hopeful about your and your children’s future if you feel healthy and strong. The more emotionally healthy you are, the better able you’ll cope with whatever the divorce courts, mediation lawyers, or alimony and child custody decisions bring your way.
Here’s an honest, positive way to think about getting divorced: “Divorce can so easily feel like failure but it is also about triumph,” writes Robert Taibbi on Children and Divorce: Helping and Healing on the Psychology Today website. “You and your husband have helped each other to grow and change over the years, to be a different person than when you both started, and now you have merely reached the end. Your roads have divided. It is time for change, a new chapter.”
Don’t gloss over the pain of divorce. Rather, focus on the fact that life always brings blessings and battles, sweet celebrations and painful separations. Grieving your loss will help your kids cope with the pain of divorce. Being grateful for the little things will help your children see that while getting divorced is painful for a family, it is simply something that happened…just like getting sick, or losing a grandma or grandpa, or saying goodbye to a beloved pet.
Adjust your “divorce talk” to your child’s age and maturity level
In the same article (Children and Divorce: Helping and Healing), Taibbi offers this advice for divorcing parents:
If your children are under four years old, try and keep the same routines as much as possible. Children are resilient; over time they will adjust to a different lifestyle and family situation. Talk about the basic changes the divorce will have on their lives (eg, Daddy is not here now but you will see him at his new house). Encourage your children to express their emotions by asking questions about how they feel about the divorce. Tell them it’s okay to talk about these feelings. Let your children’s babysitters, preschool teachers, etc. know that you’re in the process of separation and divorce so they can anticipate any changes in behaviors and provide additional support. Your children will cope better if everyone is aware of the divorce process.
If your kids are between 5 and 12, sit down with them a week or two before the actual separation. Tell them that you and their dad are separating; explain what this means in terms of concrete changes to their lives (eg, that they will stay at the same school, that they will see the other parent on certain days or in certain months). Explain that you are not getting along, that this happens sometimes between parents, that these are grown-up problems. Ask your children if they have any questions about getting a family divorce, and answer them simply. Let your kids know that you as parents still love them and care about them, and that it is safe for them to express emotions and talk about how they feel. Try to keep routines and rules as consistent as possible.
In Mindful Co-Parenting: A Child-Friendly Path Through Divorce clinical psychologists Jeremy S. Gaies and James B. Morris Jr. provide divorced parents a practical way through the process that protects their children.
This compact, step-by-step guide reveals what matters most to kids and describes the importance of parents being mindful of their children’s needs and wants during the divorce process. Starting with the question of whether or not divorce is the best option for your family, the book walks you through the process, from choosing the most child-friendly divorce proceedings, to navigating co-parenting after the papers are signed, to handling the future challenges of stepparenting and other issues that may arise.
If your kids are teenagers, tell them in advance how the separation and divorce will affect their lives. Prepare teens for the changes divorce brings and allow them to have more say about their schedules – but don’t allow them to be in charge. Asking your teens questions about what they think and feel will show them that they can talk to you. Answer their questions simply. Tell your teens how you are doing and what you are doing to take care of yourself. Be careful not to rely on them as a junior parent or emotional support for you – they will feel the burden of responsibility and worry. As teens get older, moving between houses can feel like a huge nuisance; be willing to negotiate changes with your teens as they get older. This will help your teenage children cope with a painful divorce by giving them more power and control in their lives.
“You are a model for your children on taking risks, the courage of taking charge of your life, managing life changes,” says Taibbi. “If you are okay, so too will be your children.”
Harmful mistakes divorcing parents make:
- Using their children to punish their ex
- Expecting extended family and friends to choose sides
- Allowing the divorce process to consume them
- Not cooperating with the divorce courts, judges, or lawyers
- Not asking their children what type of help they need to get through the divorce
- Forcing kids to choose between Mom and Dad
- Not thinking of the future
- Spoiling their children with excessive indulgences
- Discussing divorce matters and proceeding in front of the kids
- Making parenting decisions out of guilt and shame instead of what’s best for the kids
- Making decisions out of emotion instead of logic and clear thinking
- Not consulting a divorce mediator or counselor to help children cope with the separation and divorce process
- Not moving on with their own lives
Are you separated but uncertain if actually getting divorced is a good idea? Read How to Know if Divorce is the Best Decision.
Teach your children how to cope with an angry father
If your ex-husband is critical or verbally abusive to you or them, learn how to cope by adopting a matter-of-fact attitude.
“Teach the children how to accept the reality of the bashing rather than pretend it does not exist,” writes Richard A. Warshak in Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent/Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex. “The healthiest stance is to adopt a matter-of-fact attitude. The bashing exists. It is irrational. It is unpleasant. And they can’t do anything about it.”
Warshak encourages us to compare the episodes of verbal abuse or angry outbursts to thunderstorms. We don’t like being exposed to rain, thunder, and lightning, but we can’t deny that it exists!
“If we pretended the storm did not exist we would do nothing to protect ourselves,” writes Warshak. “Instead we accept the fact of the storm’s existence and its inevitability. We also accept that we are powerless to control the storm. We ease our fear through better understanding of the phenomena. And we protect ourselves by taking cover, or removing ourselves from the storm’s path.”
If you are the target of your ex-husband’s angry outburst or verbal abuse, learn how to respond in a knowledgeable and effective manner. Be matter-of-fact. If you fail to do so, you may be allowing an even more harmful process to take root.
You can help your kids cope with divorce anger by teaching them how to tell themselves: “Uh-oh, Dad’s at it again. Let’s get out of his way and find something else to do until the storm blows over.”
What do you think of these tips and resources for how to help your kids through a painful divorce? While I can’t offer advice on getting divorced or helping children cope, I do read every comment.
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