How to support your child’s mental health through divorce
My clients who are parents worry about one thing above all else. Their children. Whether the divorce is putting them in an unmanageable situation. Whether you are causing long-lasting trauma.
And the main message I want you to take from How to support your child’s mental health through divorce is that your children are more resilient than you think they are. Does that mean you should put your feet up and forget all about their needs as you divorce? No, of course not. It means two things:
- Beating yourself up about your decision to divorce will do no good whatsoever
- There are ways you can support your children and their mental health.
The rest of How to support your child’s mental health through divorce, will focus on number two. Reading it will help with number one as well! So, here’s how to support your child’s mental health through divorce.
Expect turbulent times
It’s entirely natural that the news and changes created by your divorce will affect your child. Think about all the other life events they may have had to contend with so far: perhaps the arrival of a sibling, starting school, moving home, friendship breakdowns… I’ll bet all of these things saw some turbulence. So it’s unreasonable to expect your child to have zero reaction to divorce.
Look back to other periods of change. How did your child respond? Did they vent their frustration outwardly, with ‘bad’ behaviour? Did they become more velcro: needing more attention and reassurance? Or perhaps they went inwards: sought sanctuary within themselves for a time?
One way or another your child has already developed ways of coping with change. And yes, this one might be bigger and more difficult than falling out with their best friend in the playground. Or maybe not – perhaps to your child this is simply a new way for them to be with you and their other parent. Falling out with their best friend might have felt far more devastating.
How to support your child’s mental health through divorce
The point is, we bring all sorts of assumptions about how our children are feeling. But we can’t know for sure. So your first, most important job is to listen and notice. Try to find some time with them each day, where your attention is focussed solely on them. Ten minutes is enough for your child to feel seen. For younger children, it might be part of the bedtime routine. For older children and teens you might need to chat to them in the kitchen around mealtimes.
Not all of us respond well to direct questions – children included. So rather than grill them about how they’re feeling, just spend time with them. Chat to them about their day. What was the funniest thing that happened? What are they looking forward to? This sort of low-pressure connection makes it more likely they’ll come to you if something is on their mind about divorce.
And when they do, stop what you’re doing and listen. Put the phone down. Reassure them, while being honest. Answer their questions in an age-appropriate way, and don’t give answers if you don’t have them yet. If they ask about what’s happening, and you don’t have a clear plan, say so. But reassure them that you’ll have a special time together, even if it is different.
Perhaps they won’t come to you with clearly articulated feelings about the divorce. They’ll get angry about bedtimes, or wanting more time on the Playstation, or that you’ve cooked the wrong dinner. What’s underneath all that? Perhaps they are trying to tell you something in their own way.
What do you do when your child acts out? When they yell at you because you’ve ruined their life, or packed a lunch they don’t like? I’m not going to give you hard and fast rules, here, because every family is different. You’ll know when to let a shouty episode go, and when to call out angry behaviour. You know your child the best.
I will say that children will look to you for consistency and normality. So while it may be tempting to let them do whatever they want because you want them to be happy, they may be subconsciously begging for a boundary. They may be asking you to say no, and remind them of your family’s way of treating each other.
Most of all, children need to feel safe. Your divorce will cause turbulence, but you can also be a steadying force. And to do that, you need to remind them of what’s ok and what isn’t. If your family dynamic has been aggressive in the past (particularly if your ex-spouse was aggressive) then some recalibration is in order.
As you listen and notice, you’ll be able to spot when your child is struggling. The first thing to do when you notice is, create space for them to talk about it. Take them for a walk, a shopping trip, or somewhere else they can relax with you. And invite them to talk about what’s on their mind.
It may be that your child doesn’t want to open up to you, but would with another trusted adult. Is there a family friend or relative who can shower them with attention for a while?
Let school and other adults with a caring role know. Their worries may be affecting their behaviour, so it’s helpful to keep everyone in the loop.
Changes in behaviour – whether that’s withdrawing or lashing out, or something in between – are to be expected. But if you find the behaviour continues for weeks, or is something you are worried about, don’t be afraid to get help. It’s not a sign of poor parenting or weakness. Gingerbread has a list of useful organisations to help with children and their mental health.
As I started this blog by saying, children are more resilient than you think. This doesn’t mean you can be complacent – make sure you are giving them your love and attention. Respond to difficulties as they arise. Seek help if needed. Struggles with mental health at times of stress are nothing to be ashamed of – for you or your children.
But don’t torture yourself either. Remember you are not ruining their lives. It is hard to see them struggle. But you will come through this divorce process. And so will they. They will have their own ways of responding to divorce – many of which sit within a normal range of reactions. Just as you will go through a grief cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, so will they. Probably many times over. And they may well exhibit behaviours in response to their grief that are different to yours. That doesn’t mean they aren’t valid or inappropriate.
I’ve got your back
If you need someone to talk through your decision-making around divorce, whether it’s to do with your children or anything else, contact me. I offer private, 1-1 coaching to help you get through the tough patches and make the most of when you’re riding high so you can navigate divorce on your terms and create a life you want.
Contact me to book in a free, confidential chat today.
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