Helping Your Child Cope with a Difficult Divorce

Unfortunately, most divorces are not exactly amicable. Affairs, abandonment, substance abuse, incarceration or hostile arguments may characterize the road to your divorce. In those cases, how to you talk to your kids about it in a healthy way?

Make sure your needs are met. Be sure that you are staying as healthy and emotionally stable as possible during this stressful time. Eat right, exercise, find comfort in the support of family and friends, and seek counseling for additional support and empowerment. The more in control you feel about the situation and upcoming changes, the more steady you’ll be when you talk with your kids about it.

Shield your children. Though it is important to be direct with your kids when telling them about the divorce, be careful when choosing your words to describe WHY the divorce is occurring. Use words such as, “Your dad is really struggling with his own grown-up problems right now. He needs to figure out the best way to take care of himself before he can learn to take care of his family.” Be tactful when talking about your ex-partner, and refrain from sharing unnecessary details with your child about their other parent’s behavior. Especially in cases of family abandonment, continue to reiterate that the divorce is not your child’s fault, and that he or she did not do anything to cause the other parent to leave.

Shield your children some more! Under any circumstances, you should not argue or fight with your ex in front of your children. This means in person and by phone. Find a time when only adults are around to discuss things that may become heated; do not assume that your child is asleep or playing in their bedroom while you and your ex argue in the kitchen – children see and hear all, and then absorb everything and internalize it. Do not force your child into the position of having to choose sides, because the only person it truly hurts is your child.

Check in regularly. Be sure to ask your child how he or she is feeling at least daily, and listen to and validate their feelings. Especially in situations where your kids have already seen “too much,” such as a parent’s substance abuse problems or visiting a parent in prison, it is important to give your child the opportunity to voice concerns, anger and fears: “I know it’s hard for you not to see your mom on the weekends, and you worry that she may be out drinking when you’re not there. Remember that you are not in charge of helping her get well, she needs to work on fixing her problems with the other grown-ups in her life who are working to help her. And remember that she loves you very much.” If you believe your child is experiencing significant emotional problems, seek the support of a trained mental health professional right away, and help your child develop healthy coping strategies for handling stress. Family counseling (minus the other parent, if they are not willing to attend) is always a good idea following divorce.

Give your child coping tools. In smaller communities where families are more likely to know about one another’s circumstances, you will also want to check in with your child about how peers are school are treating him or her – are they teasing your daughter because her father is in prison or spreading rumors about your son because his mother had an affair? Help your child practice appropriate ways to respond to teasing or bullying, whether that be direct and assertive responses, distracting from the situation by changing the subject or using humor, or other methods. Counseling is also another place for your child to develop useful skills in this area.



About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.