Preparing Kids for Divorce

By Lindsey Townsend

You’re sick of crying, and you’re tired of fighting. You’ve accepted the fact that it’s really over, and you believe that life (eventually) will be better without your spouse. But what about your kids? How do you prepare your children for a divorce--without blowing their world to bits?

If you do become the primary caretaker of your children through divorce, take heart in the fact that you’re not alone. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 43% of first marriages in the United States end in separation or divorce within 15 years.

And while you may break up with a spouse, parenting is forever. You can’t completely eliminate the stress of divorce on your children, but there are techniques you can use to decrease its negative impact. Here are eight tips that can help:

  1. Tell them together. Ideally, parents should inform the children together, according to Dr. Paul Coleman, author of How to Say It To Your Kids (Prentice Hall, 2000). That avoids the problem of children hearing two different versions of events. More importantly, it helps preserve your children’s sense of trust in the parental relationship even though the marital relationship is dissolving. How to say it: “For a long time Mom and Dad have not been getting along. We have tried in different ways to make our marriage happier, but we are still not happy. We have decided not to live together and to get a divorce.”

  2. Reassure them that it’s not their fault. Psychologists say that most children older than four or five will assume that they are somehow responsible for the divorce. “Remind them that the divorce was not due to their (bad) grades or because they didn’t do something like keep their room clean,” says Jeffrey Chase, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.

  3. Maintain routines and consistency. Children thrive on routine and feel safest when things are familiar, according to David John Berndt, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in divorce and family issues. Although economic changes may dictate a move or job change, keep as much as possible-bedtimes, playdates with friends, mealtimes--stable during the difficult transition period. And be sure to give them extra hugs, kisses and physical contact to help reassure them and stay connected.

  4. Tune in. Don’t be so anxious to explain everything that you don't take the time to really listen to where your child is at emotionally. While one child may need small doses of information, another might only be reassured by a lot of questions and answers. Older children are often aware that there has been discord in the home for some time and may not be as surprised as you might think. “Some children know much more than you think they do...and are further along in the process than you'd expect,” says Catherine A. Chambliss, Ph.D., chair and professor of the department of psychology at Ursinus College near Philadelphia.

  5. Don’t belittle your spouse. Unless your former husband has a history of harming your children, he will still have a relationship with your kids. Since children tend to identify and feel loyal to both parents, it’s painful for them to be asked to take sides or listen to an enraged parent's venting. “It can be devastating for children to experience one parent's seething hatred of the other,” says Dr. Chambliss. It's far easier on children if parents can find the strength to respond to each other with respect--and to allow that they even admire aspects of the other parent, despite irreconcilable differences.

  6. Explain the new day-to-day. Children are naturally self-centered, and their immediate concerns will center on how the divorce will affect their life. Be prepared to tell them all the details of what their daily activities will be like after the divorce…when they will see their father, where they will spend their summers and vacations. Reassuring children that they will remain a priority in both parents’ lives--and that the two of you will work together to help the child have the best life possible--is important.

  7. Accept some anger and disappointment. It’s only natural for children to be upset at the change. Don’t expect the transition to be over in weeks or even months. It often takes between one and two years before children have readjusted to their new lifestyle, according to Dr. Chase.

    Depending on the maturity of the child, emphasizing the idea that both parents' relationships with the child may become much better after the couple separates can also be helpful. For example, you might say: “When two people make each other so unhappy, it's very draining and distracting. It's hard when that takes away our energy to enjoy the great times with you.”

  8. Take care of yourself. Learn to be a little narcissistic. As a divorced parent it’s tempting to do everything yourself and end up exhausted. “Many a martyred single parent, in their zeal to prove something to themselves or to a former spouse, will try to go it alone. But it really does take a community to raise a child,” says psychologist Michael Willet, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Michigan.

    It’s essential that you carve out some time for self-care so that you can stay healthy in body, mind and soul. “You can’t do your children any good when you’re tired, angry, and overworked. You have to learn to let other people help,” Dr. Willet says. When the frustration level gets too high, make sure you find some relief, whether it’s switching off babysitting with a friend, having Grandma come over, or sending the kids to a neighbor’s house to play.