How To Help Children Of All Ages Cope With Divorce
Divorce is an emotional process as much as it is a legal one, especially when there are children involved. It’s a life-changing and often traumatic moment in the life of any child who experiences it. While helping your children navigate divorce can be complicated and painful, it’s even more complicated and painful for them to mentally and emotionally process. Here are some tips to help you navigate children of all ages through divorce and ease their pain, trauma, and emotions.
Babies & Toddlers
The three most important things in a baby’s life at this age are love, stability, and routine. While the love that each parent feels towards their baby may never waiver, stability and routine can be tremendously impacted during a divorce and can have a negative effect on your baby’s emotional development. They may not be able to understand words quite yet, but they do understand emotions. Try your best to keep them on a stable routine full of love, peace, and consistency.
Navigating a toddler’s journey through divorce is especially difficult because the bond between toddlers and their parents are incredibly strong in these formative years. Major home disruptions can be hard to comprehend, and they may even blame themselves for their parents’ separation. They’re not quite old enough to understand why Mommy and Daddy are breaking up, but they are old enough to understand that it hurts. Just like infants, it’s important to establish a predictable and easy-to-follow routine that keeps them busy and shows them they’re loved and valued by both parents. Quality time and extra attention will also be key in soothing the pain of divorce in toddlers. Talk to your child about their feelings, read them books, and openly reassure them that they’re loved and that this isn’t their fault.
Young School-Aged Children
Like Toddlers, young school-aged children often feel as though they’re ultimately responsible for their parents’ separation. They may feel like their parents are divorcing THEM, rather than each other. They also tend to mirror any negative actions or emotions they experience at home.
As hard as it may be, it is important that both parents handle any conversations about the divorce in an open, positive and loving manner when talking to (or in front of) your child. While this can be very difficult in moments of anger or distress, it’s incredibly important. According to Psychologist and Divorce Coach Ann Gold Buscho, children know that they’re built from both parents and this is their core identity.
“I have heard stories from parents and children about how the on-duty parent talks about the other parent. One child, Sophie (not her real name), told me that when mom ‘trash talked’ her dad, she felt it as a personal attack. She said that she felt it ‘like a stab in my gut.' Sophie, like many children, suffered from physical symptoms as a result of this stress. The symptoms included stomach aches, migraines, and insomnia.” – Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D., Psychology Today
Dr. Buscho goes on to say that "when Sophie heard the ‘trash talk,’ it was as if the part of her that was her father was being rejected, or that she had to reject it herself to be loyal to her mother. She was at risk of disconnecting from a part of herself that would be buried or walled off. The internal conflict and stress that was triggered led to physical and mental health issues, as well as long-term problems in her relationships with both of her parents.”
Aside from sparing your children from parental arguments and “trash talk,” it may also help to bring in age-appropriate books on the subject to help guide conversations and validate their experiences. Reassure them that they will still see both parents and more importantly, follow through. Set up a regular visitation schedule and stick to it so they associate your promises with truth and positive action.
Pre-Teens & Teenagers
At this age, it’s very common for older children to “pick a side.” They’re old enough to understand more detail and rather than blame themselves, they may blame one or both parents for the divorce and internalize their feelings or act rebelliously as a result. To avoid reckless behavior that can be damaging to themselves or others, cultivate a positive routine that focuses on school, friendships, and extracurricular activities – all of which are important to kids at this age. Encourage your child to get involved in the things they thoroughly enjoy, reward good behavior, and create an emotional space at home where they feel comfortable having real, open conversations about their emotions and experiences.
At the end of the day, nobody knows your child better than you. As hurt and overwhelmed as you may be during this transitional and difficult time, it is important to listen and pay attention to your kids so you can be there for them however they need you to be. If you feel like things are out of control, or you’ve “tried everything,” do not hesitate to seek professional help for you or your children to assist with mental and emotional guidance. You never have to navigate the emotional journey of divorce alone.