Steps Families Can Take to Help Children Through a Divorce

Divorce can take many shapes. Some marriages end in friendships with all the involved parties walking away amicably. Other marriages are battle-born, battle-bred, and end in wars of attrition.  

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Bob Livingstone describes the harm high conflict divorces can do to children trying to cope in a world of emotional instability where relationships are often irreparably damaged. This damage does not just apply to the spouses, children are often used as leverage or are privy to seeing their parents at their worst.

In tense circumstances, children search for ways to cope, to survive in an environment where it does not feel like there is much love being passed around. As a divorce goes on, tensions increase and escalate until the fangs are out.

Often kids do not have the tools to manage these types of conversations and situations—angry words exchanged, brutal scenes where families are torn apart, and the lingering thoughts that go unexpressed, trapped racing around minds that are not sure how to deal with them in healthy ways.

Children may feel pressured into pleasing both parents, and avoid conflict, frequently resulting in saying what parents want to hear. Children push aside thoughts, wants, and beliefs, choosing to lie to pacify the adults.

Instead of learning how to confront a conflict and resolve it, kids grow to avoid or ignore relationships with even a normal amount of conflict. Resolution skills become muted. They embrace a strategy of lying and learn to lie willingly and convincingly to remain free of conflict. 

Parents going through a conflicted divorce often float between bad communication and no communication at all. The children begin to provide for their own needs and care for themselves. Kids tend to withdraw, and friendships with peers suffer because their sense of empathy, cooperation, and compromise must shift to manipulation.

Depression can set in, and their longing for attention turns to self-loathing, acting out, poor academic performance at school, and quitting activities that once made them happy. Sometimes, this need for attention goes another way, and kids push for perfection. This drive leads to disappointment, and kids lose the ability to be kind either to themselves or others.

After a while, the choices children make can create behaviors, leaving them stunted emotionally and developmentally. Unable to feel fulfillment, contentment, or real happiness, kids learn to wear figurative masks and project an image others want to see, this imposter syndrome hides real personalities.  

Tips to Get to a Better Tomorrow

In an unhappy or unhealthy marriage, divorce may be the best option overall, but that does not mean that the process does not upend families, leaving all parties in a tumultuous mire.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, children’s reactions to divorce may be really distinct, but frequently, their reaction depends on their age:

  • Younger children commonly experience confusion 
  • Teenagers commonly display anger, guilt, and worry

The transition of a familial split does not have to be so hard. The right tools can aid in building a bridge and getting over difficult periods. When children feel like their world is falling apart, here are 10 tips for parents to help preserve familial relationships: 

  1. Stay involved in children’s lives – Make sure they know their parents are there for them. 
  2. Let go of the ego and pick up the work of co-parenting – Children should be kept out of the argument. Children do not need to feel like they’re raising their parents. Be an adult. 
  3. Harbor a child’s relationship with other parents – Be supportive and encouraging concerning the time kids spend with their other parents.
  4. Try not to say negative comments about other parents – This forces a child to pick sides. A child should not be put in this position.
  5. Be honest – Children deserve truthful communication. 
  6. Listen to the kid – Encourage them to express their feelings and let them know their feelings are normal.
  7. Ensure them that things will work out – Change is hard, but it is also essential, and learning how to adapt to changes can be a priceless commodity. 
  8. Make sure the kid stays in a consistent structure – Routines can establish stability and a sense of calmness.
  9. Parents who take care of themselves are ideal role models for kids living amid uncertainty – Finding productive coping mechanisms help create a stable and healthy home environment for the kids. 
  10. Counseling is an option – A good therapist or counselor can provide a healing framework while talking through how to move into a practical and happy future.

Resources for Children of Divorce

Local communities may bolster divorce support groups or classes for single-parenting, and the California Courts offer lists of online resources. Among them include: 

  • Changeville: A website helping kids understand their emotions during a divorce\
  • Families Change: A three-part guide for parents, teenagers, and children struggling through divorce.
  • Finances After Separation: A financial guide to help parents make money decisions after a separation.
  • Sesame Street Toolkits for Parents: A guide to help kids adjust to two households.

Parenting plans define the guidelines for making decisions concerning the child and custody. The plan also builds a stable framework for when and where a child will spend time with each parent. There are a few factors to consider while developing a plan, including:

  • Who has legal custody?
  • What are the terms of the visitation agreement?
  • The relationship between individual parents and siblings 
  • The children’s ages and dispositions  
  • Time-share schedules 
  • Holidays and vacation days
  • The distance between homes and transportation arrangements 
  • Any other agreements between parents or modifications to the custody agreements
  • The parents’ work schedules and flexibility 
  • Special arrangements for childcare
  • A child’s specific needs
  • The status of the relationship between parents—Does the relationship consist of open and cooperative communication or problematic decisions that are full of conflict?

Parenting plans can micromanage every day while a child spends time with the other parent. Parents can decide to be general or specific. High conflict divorces typically work better with specific plans. When more thought is put into a parenting plan, the more meaningful time is solidified with children, creating more stability and less chaos. 

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