Divorce can have life-long effects on young kids. Read on to learn how to deal with the impact on divorce and children.
If you’re navigating a divorce, worries about the impact on your child can be one of the most stressful parts of the experience. For decades, we’ve heard that research on divorce and children shows that divorce is harmful to a child’s well-being. However, this isn’t always the case.
In fact, divorce itself isn’t the problem—strife between divorced parents and caregivers is what can hurt children’s emotional health.1
Additionally, the way society may stigmatize divorce or view and treat families navigating divorce can have an impact on young children. For example, the term ‘broken home’ has a negative connotation and children may internalize these types of labels based on what those around them are saying. Therefore, it’s important to have conversations with your kids about your separation and let them know you’ll support them every step of the way so they can internalize their own understanding of the situation.
Still, divorce is a life-altering event that can affect your child’s future and relationships. But not to worry. There are many ways you can make divorce easier for your child. The end of a marriage can be the beginning of a positive new chapter in your lives where you can establish strong connections with your child and encourage positive co-parenting.
We’ve put together this guide on children and divorce to help you support your child through the ups and downs while you build a stronger bond together.
How to Explain Divorce to Kids
The first step to creating an open dialogue around the divorce is explaining it to your children. Many caregivers fear they won’t know how to answer all of their child’s questions. But you don't need to have all the answers right away. All you need to do is have an honest, loving, and age-appropriate conversation.
4 Tips For Talking About Divorce
If you're trying to explain the divorce process to your children and help them understand the changes, there are a few different approaches you can take:
- Be honest about the situation – As best you can, try to answer questions truthfully and without bias. Your children need to feel they can trust you. Remember, they're likely already well aware of the parental stress and tension in the household leading up to the separation or divorce. It's important they feel included in the changes taking place.
- Avoid placing blame – Do not blame one parent or the other. Reassure your child that both parents still love them. It’s essential to explain that both parents will still be involved in their lives, even though they may not live together anymore. Your child needs to know that their own relationship with their parents won’t change.
- Emphasize that your child is not to blame – Children of divorce often worry that their behavior caused fighting, or even made one parent want to leave. Reassure your child that they are not responsible in any way for issues between their parents.
- Make space for their feelings – You’re experiencing a lot of pain too, but it’s vital to allow your child to express their emotions without fear of upsetting you. Allow them to ask questions and express their feelings while you actively listen and validate their emotions. Process your own feelings about the divorce with friends, family, or a therapist.
Tips for Explaining Divorce to Children at Every Age
As you approach the conversation, keep in mind that not all children may understand the divorce process and the big changes coming. Older or almost-adult children will likely understand the situation better than your younger children.
- For children under 5 – Young children may not understand the concept of divorce. Because preschoolers understand the world in terms of themselves, focus on helping your child understand that neither parent is leaving them. Explain that your divorce implies you won’t be living together and that certain factors like routines, schedules, and living situations may change. However, make sure to be clear about that regardless of the changes happening, you and your partner will always be there for your child so they feel supported through every adjustment.
- For school-age children – At this age, most children have some understanding of divorce from TV, social media, or friends. Focus on answering their questions and providing simple, clear reassurance about the questions or worries that concern them most. Expect questions about what happens to the family home, who will move out, which parent they’ll live with, where pets will go, and so on.
- For teens – Teenagers tend to express the most anger about divorce. Be prepared for your teen to have their own opinions about what has been happening in the household. Try not to react defensively or take it personally if they place blame or lash out. It will take time for your teen to work through their fear, sadness, and anger about their family life changing.
Impacts of the Parental Relationship on Children
Since the 1970s, researchers have studied divorce and kids. Many signs of stress can be found in children of divorced parents and households, such as:
- Behavioral problems
- Problems in school
- Low self-esteem
In the past, researchers believed this meant that parental divorce causes harm to children. However, more modern studies have found that these problems come from the stress between parents that leads to divorce—not divorce itself.2
Whether caregivers are openly fighting with each other or giving each other the silent treatment, children feel the tension all the same. This parental conflict and strife at home causes behavior problems and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, sleep problems, poor school performance, and more.
In situations like this, divorce is a short-term stressor that leads to a happier, healthier home life in the long run. In fact, once children from divorced homes have adjusted to the change, they have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than children in high-conflict, married homes.1
How to Address the Impacts of Divorce
Typically, divorce is hardest on children in the first year. After that, most children recover and score equally with peers from married households on measures of emotional and behavioral health.1
There are five key factors that make divorce more or less psychologically damaging for children:1
- Level of conflict between the parents, exposure to conflict, and perception of conflict resolution between parents
- Mental health of the parents
- Involvement of the non-primary caregiver
- Financial impact
- The child’s perception of events
What can you do to minimize these factors? Some are outside of your control, such as the financial impact of divorcing. But you can work with your co-parent to minimize as many of these factors as you can.
- Minimize the harm from conflict – Talk to your co-parent about using conflict resolution strategies when you do have disagreements. Let your child see healthy conflict resolution in action.
- Try not to put your child in the middle – Witnessing any conflict between parents can be damaging, but it’s most harmful when children are the focus of the conflict.1 Do your best not to involve your child in disagreements with your partner. Most of all, try to ensure your child is not present when having disagreements involving them.
- Make transitions smooth – When sharing custody, some of the most stressful situations arise as you hand off your child for time with their other parent. It’s vital that children feel connected to both caregivers, so try to keep these transitions positive. It’s normal for you to feel sad your child is leaving or angry at your ex, but try to process these feelings away from your child. Make space for them to feel happiness at seeing their other parent.
- Make sure both caregivers stay involved – While you can’t control your co-parent, it’s best if children know that the non-primary caregiver is still involved and reliable. If you have primary custody, encourage your co-parent to stay connected. Make sure to provide opportunities for phone and video chats between visits.
- Care for your mental health – Seek counseling if needed to address any mental health concerns of your own. Taking self care for parents seriously during these changes is important to ensure you’re ready to be available for your kids.
- Help your child process their perceptions – Misconceptions about the breakup can cause harm to children long term. Try to answer your child’s questions about the divorce honestly to help them form an accurate, age-appropriate understanding of events.
How Caregivers Can Help Children Cope
When learning how to co parent effectively after the divorce, it’s important to keep the children’s feelings in mind. During and after the divorce, the stability and security of your bond with your child is key to helping them recover and thrive.
- Be available and fully present – The most vital part of helping your child through divorce is simply being a stable presence in their life. Provide daily one-on-one time where you give your child undivided attention. If you don’t have primary custody, a daily phone call at a specific time like bedtime or after dinner is a good alternative.
- Build new traditions – Their home life has changed, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Take the opportunity to start some fun new routines together. Try walks in a new neighborhood, a weekly outing to the zoo, or a special weekend breakfast.
- Provide stability and routine – Whether your child lives with your full- or part-time, try to provide a stable, reliable home life as often as you can. A chaotic home environment is linked to problems with emotional regulation and lowered cognitive abilities. Establishing a consistent routine—even if it’s a new routine—can make all the difference.3
- Avoid negative comments about the other parent – While divorce isn’t necessarily harmful on its own, high-conflict divorce can be.2 Try to avoid causing extra stress for your child by talking about their other parent. Vent to friends and family when you need to, and remember that your child shouldn’t be your support system.
Knowing When to Seek Help
While the majority of kids will be able to navigate the stress of divorce without long-term harm, a smaller percentage of kids struggle more significantly.1 It's important to recognize when a child may need professional help.
Signs that a child may be struggling include:4
- Persistent feelings of sadness or anxiety, crying, worrying
- Changes in behavior or mood
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disturbances
- Lashing out, aggression, and anger
- Problems at school
If you notice any of these, it may be time to seek the help of a mental health professional. Teaching the importance of self care for kids, especially during a big change like this, can be critical for your child’s well-being.
Navigate Tough Emotions with Help From Slumberkins
There’s no denying that divorce is hard on every member of the family. But in the long term, children do better in happier households, even if that means their parents or caregivers don’t live together anymore.
You can help your children navigate your divorce by talking with them honestly and letting them know you’re a reliable part of their life no matter what else changes.
Slumberkins can provide the emotional learning tools you need to help your child navigate the challenges of divorce and support them as they move forward. Share special activities like our Resilience Crew and Stress Relief resources that show kids how to manage life changes with self-confidence and emotional courage.
By nurturing your own relationship with your child post-breakup, you can show your child they’re secure and loved no matter what.
- Family Law Quarterly. Deconstructing the impact of divorce on children. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24576133
- Journal of Child and Family Studies. Reconciling mixed findings on children’s adjustment following high-conflict divorce. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-018-1277-z
- BMC Public Health. The relationship between household chaos and child, parent, and family outcomes: a systematic scoping review. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-020-08587-8
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Helping children cope with divorce. https://www.abct.org/fact-sheets/helping-children-cope-with-divorce/