How to cope with your children’s stress about divorce

Your children’s emotions will be one of the hardest things to cope with as a parent when you get divorced. In How to cope with your children’s stress about divorce, we’ll explore what might come up and how to reduce your children’s worry as much as possible. 

Ditch the guilt

First of all, children aren’t daft. If things are rocky in your marriage they will have already picked up on it. Whether it’s in the way you and your speak to each other, the things you don’t do together as a family or hundreds of other signs, they will sense it. And if your marriage isn’t going to get better, then those things won’t change (for the better) either. 

A miserable marriage is more likely to mean miserable children. And, yes, divorce is stressful. No-one likes change imposed on them. Most children won’t relish the idea of their parents being apart. But happier parents will mean happier children in the long run.

And remember, you are your child’s first teacher and role model. Do you want them to learn that staying in an unhappy marriage is what they should do when they’re older? Of course not. This account by writer Violet Fenn explains eloquently why ‘staying together for the kids’ doesn’t actually do them any favours. 

So, yes, you might be feeling guilty for getting divorced. And yes, it’s important to make it as easy on the children as possible. But don’t make the mistake of thinking divorce is the worst option for them if you’re in an unhappy marriage. 

Present a united front, if possible

If at all possible discuss how to break the news to the children with your soon-to-be-ex and come up with a plan together. Ideally, tell them together, in a calm way, and be prepared for upset and questions.

Try to anticipate their questions in advance, and be united on your answers. Some common questions are likely to be:

  • Will we have two homes now?
  • Will we still see both of you?
  • Do you still love us?
  • Who’s to blame? (this one might especially come from older children)

Unless there has been a clear, obvious incident, you don’t need to explain the ins-and-outs of your divorce decision to your children. It’s important for their mental health that they maintain a positive relationship with both parents. And the courts take this view too. In all of the court decision-making, the children’s welfare will take priority, and that includes the right for children to enjoy a good relationship with both parents if at all possible. 

So don’t get into finger-pointing, either when you tell the children or further down the line. Sure, you’ll want to vent about how rubbish your soon-to-be-ex is, or how badly they’ve behaved. Just don’t do it in front of the children. 

No one is divorcing your children

One of the most common reactions children have to the news that their parents are separating is to feel rejected. Or that it’s somehow their fault. 

Make sure you reassure your children that nothing has changed in terms of how you feel about them. Tell them that they are still very much loved by both parents. Explain that the divorce is simply about the two of you – that you are no longer happy living together. But that you both still love them and will both still see them. And it is absolutely not their fault that you are getting divorced or their responsibility to make things better. 

Teenagers in particular are likely to have complex feelings about divorce, and their role in the family as it changes. The Voices is the Middle project is an excellent resource for both 13-19 year olds and their parents. 

Be as honest as you can

We’ve looked at some of the common questions children ask. But we all know that children come up with all sorts of weird and wonderful thoughts. So it’s likely you’ll get some left field questions too. Answer these as honestly as possible. If you don’t have an answer yet, tell them. 

You might not know exactly what the arrangements will be for holidays, or next Christmas, for example. So say something like: “We haven’t finalised all the plans yet but we will make sure we’ll do fun things and you’ll have plenty of time with each of us.”

It’s likely that plans will evolve as your divorce progresses. Keep your children updated in an age-appropriate way. Don’t try and hide things – if you are going to appointments, tell them. Your children are more likely to feel reassured if they have a sense that you are taking responsibility, even if you don’t have all the answers. 

Give them some autonomy – but be the parent

No one likes feeling out of control. And divorce brings with it a lot of uncertainty. So try to find ways to allow your children to feel they’re on solid ground. Small things like:

  • Buying new special bedding for their new bedroom
  • Deciding what clothes to wear
  • Having special toys at each house

Can help them feel more grounded. 

But, ultimately, you and your soon-to-be-ex are the parents. You will need to set the terms. Listen to your children’s wishes, of course. And listen to what’s behind them. Often what sounds like anger is actually hurt, or fear. And gently set boundaries over what will and won’t be happening. Children will feel safer knowing their parents are still carrying out their parenting roles, and being responsible for their wellbeing. 

Seek help from others

We are in the 21st century, your divorce isn’t a shameful secret. Let people at your children’s school know. It might be that your children’s stress about the divorce shows up at school with clinginess, or bad behaviour, or lower marks in schoolwork. Children can put extra pastoral or mental health support in place if needed. 

If they go to activities like Beavers or Brownies, and you think it might be useful, let the adults there know. It’s helpful if any adults with pastoral responsibility for your children know what’s going on so they can look out for them. 

If appropriate, encourage your children to turn to a trusted adult to confide in. This might be a family friend, a special auntie or uncle, or someone from school. It’s important they feel able to be honest, and vulnerable. They may be able to do this more easily with someone who’s not you or your soon-to-be-ex. You may want to seek out family therapists if your children are finding it especially tough. 

Finally, don’t forget to seek out help for yourself. Managing your children’s stress is stressful in itself. And the old adage ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ sticks around because it’s true. Get the support you need for yourself – whether that’s from taking time out, speaking to a therapist or venting with friends. 

Join a community of supportive women

Not everyone will get it. Some of your friends won’t have children. Some won’t have been divorced. Others will – but their circumstances will be very different to your own. No-one you know is likely to be in the same place as you right now.

That’s why I created The Absolute Academy. It’s a community of supportive women who want to make smart decisions about divorce. Yes, it has tonnes of resources about the divorce process. Yes, I’m on hand every single day. 

It also has one of the most wonderful, empowering groups of women I’ve ever come across. Worried about how to talk things through with your children? Let the women in the group share how they did it. Come and join us here. 

About Emma

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of  The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com

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