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Minimizing the Negative Effects of Divorce on Children

Learn how to navigate the complicated dynamics of divorce, and ensure your children end up happy and healthy on the other side.

It happens. Parents get divorced. One of the main reasons our clients seek out therapy services is to help navigate this difficult, overwhelming, and confusing time for kids (and parents). How do we make sure the kids will not be scarred for life? Are we doing the right thing in trying to protect them? Below are some tips and tricks that answer these questions and help you as parents have the resources to ensure your kids remain resilient and bounce back from this adversity.

Don’t Stay Together For the Kids

This is the biggest myth out there! Many parents falsely believe that staying together is better than splitting up, and that kids thrive when they are part of a two-parent household. While this is true if the two parents are in a healthy relationship and able to appropriately and consistently model respective listening, treating each other with love and compassion, and what a healthy relationship looks and feels like for their children- but it is definitely NOT true if there is any ongoing conflict, domestic violence, or lack of love and respect in the parent dynamic.

Research shows that when parents attempt to stay in a hurtful or high conflict marriage, that children actually end up much worse off than if they had gone ahead and gotten a divorce and focused on positive co-parenting.

Children adapt and thrive when they see that their parents are able to communicate with respect and work things out, despite living in two separate homes. If being stuck in a marriage creates a toxic home environment, the best thing you can do for your kids is to give them distance from the toxicity and do what it takes to restore love and safety in the household- even if this leads to a divorce.

Be Truthful, but Age-Appropriate

Children are intuitive, thoughtful, and extremely observant. Many parents believe they are protecting their kids by keeping them in the dark, when in fact this could be causing more damage than they realize.

Children will have many questions about the divorce, and if they are not provided age-appropriate explanations they will come up with their own- and children’s own explanations in their head are usually always worse than the truth.

Children of all ages (but primarily 7yrs and younger) are extremely egocentric- everything is for me, about me, and caused by me. When children are not given information about why their parents are getting divorce, they automatically assume it is their fault. It’s not uncommon for a child to believe his or her parents are getting divorced because the child got in trouble a lot this week, or because she knocked over the plant two weeks ago, or because he cried last night when he didn’t want to go to bed.

Giving your children the information they need to understand what is going on (no more, no less- as a general rule, use their questions to guide you) eliminates the need for them to make up their own, more hurtful and damaging explanations.

As a rule of thumb, giving 1-2 sentences about why you are getting divorced is enough of an explanation. As we said before, children are very observant and have overheard the fighting and conflict anyway, so affirming this for them reinforces children to trust their instincts and internal responses.

Reiterate Safety and What Remains Constant

After breaking the news of the divorce or separation, your child will probably be thinking about all the things in his or her life that are going to change. One way to make your child feel safe is to talk about what will stay the same.

The main thing here is to state over and over that you will both always be their parents and that you will both always love them. Children need to constantly hear that than even though you can end marriages, you can never end the job of being a parent and that parents don’t fall out of love with their kids.

Continue to have conversations with your kids about more of the things that will remain constant. Will they be attending the same school? Will their room in one of the houses be the same? Same sports team or extracurricular activities?

Children feel safe when they have structure and predictability. Knowing in advance of the things that will remain constant in their lives will go a long way in establishing safety and predictability despite other major changes going on.

Repeatedly Remove any Blame from Children

Key word here is repeatedly. Kids need to hear it several times that it is not their fault that parents are getting divorced. Back to the fact that children are very egocentric and believe that everything revolves around them, it’s important to remember this when a divorce occurs and take active and intentional steps to prevent your child from internalizing blame.

Stating over and over to your children that it is not their fault, they did nothing to cause this, they can not fix it, and that both parents are working together to make the family system feel safe, loving, and peaceful again is the best approach in ensuring your child does not live in fear or shame believing they caused you and your partner to separate or split up. The more you can reinforce this, the better.

Have more questions about the psychological or emotional wellbeing of your children in the aftermath of a divorce? Contact our office or schedule an appointment here to meet with one of our play therapists and talk about how we can support your children and your family.

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