Helping Children Through Divorce or Separation

Divorce is difficult for everyone involved, but it can be particularly tough on kids.

Fear, denial, sadness — these are just some of the emotions children can experience when their parents split up. Some kids blame themselves, others get angry, and almost all feel as though their world is being ripped apart.

What children often don't understand is that divorce ends a marriage, but not a family. Parents are still parents, and kids need their guidance to get through this transition. Specifically, parents must be honest, supportive, and keep an eye out for behavioral changes. Also, legal separation also requires parents to be aware of their children's behavior because it has different grounds to be considered official compared to a divorce and may be harder to explain to children.

mom comforting child during divorceFor divorcing couples, “one of the most difficult tasks is to separate out their adult issues and focus on what is best for the child,” says Joan Felski, a Milwaukee therapist with more than 20 years of experience working with adolescents. “The more parents can look at this through the eyes of the child, the better it will be for the child.”
Research shows that relatively few children experience long-lasting emotional problems following the divorce of their parents. In the short-term, however, effects vary by age and developmental level.

Felski, who works with Therapies East Associates in downtown Milwaukee, points out that feelings about divorce can change as a child develops. Therefore, it's important that parents are always receptive to their children's feelings and listen to what they have to say.

Along with being attentive, parents also need to communicate openly and honestly. While it might seem easier to shield kids from the matter, “children need a simple but honest explanation about the reasoning behind the divorce,” says Angela Pruess, a marriage and family therapist with Clinical Psychology Associates in Menomonee Falls.

“Many children, if not offered an explanation, will believe it is in some way their fault,” Pruess says. “Continual reassurance that the divorce is not their fault, and that they are still loved by both parents, is vital.”

Nonetheless, emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt and confusion are common. Expected, even. Parents need to ensure that children have adequate opportunities to express these feelings.

“What's important is that parents are open to hearing what their children have to say,” Felski says. Supportive parents encourage children to share their feelings, and this is an important way for children to process and accept a divorce.

Throughout a divorce or separation, parents should also keep a close eye on any behavioral changes. If a child is having problems at home, school or with friends, he or she may be having a difficult time coping with the divorce.

Pruess and colleague Candice Wendlick, a social worker with Clinical Psychology Associates, suggest keeping an eye out for these types of changes:

  • Irritability/Anger (defiance and aggression)
  • Withdrawing at home or socially
  • Increased sensitivity
  • Changes in appetite or sleep
  • Excessive crying
  • Difficulty concentrating and completing tasks

Ultimately, parents are the best experts when it comes to the health of their children. If there are concerns over a child's behavior, couples can always reach out to a child therapist to work through the complicated set of emotions that accompany a divorce or separation.

References: Is Divorce Bad for Children?

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