An Expert’s Tips for Helping Children Cope with Divorce

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Aug 12, 2015

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Couples divorce for myriad reasons, but most ultimately take the decision believing that ending the marriage will make their lives happier and their children’s lives more stable. This outcome requires hard work, often right at the moment many parents feel emotional and unsettled themselves. The way parents conduct themselves during and after a divorce, with respect to each other and their child, is the single most important factor of the child’s emotional well-being. Here are tips for helping children cope with divorce.

Tips for helping children cope with divorce

It starts with communicating the decision to divorce to your child clearly and firmly. Without explaining divorce to children, they will look for reasons on their own, and likely won’t hit on the right ones. Young children especially will internalize the change as their fault. So, when you and your partner choose to explain the reasons behind your separation/divorce*, be sure to:

Stress that the divorce is not your child’s fault.

Conveying the decision to part has nothing to do with your child goes a long way in helping children deal with divorce. Perhaps she has heard you arguing with each other over her homework and assumes the blame. She may have seen one parent shout at the other and wished the former would go away. Without being told differently, she may readily shoulder all the guilt for the divorce.

Reassure your child of your love.

Your child needs constant reassurance that, no matter what has happened to your love for each other, you both love him very much. It is crucial to helping kids deal with divorce that this be conveyed to them repeatedly.

Encourage your child to stay in touch with the other parent.

If one parent has moved out of the family home, you might explain, “Even though dad/mum is living apart, he/she will still come and see you. And you can go visit him/her whenever you want.” It may be difficult to follow through on this promise, but making sure this happens is essential to helping children cope with divorce.

Explain that all feelings are acceptable.

Explain to your child that feeling sad, angry, upset or lonely is all right and that she may feel all of these emotions at various times. It is the negative expression of these emotions – shouting, hitting, being rude – that is not acceptable.

Discourage hopes of reconciliation.

A lot of kids not only hope that their parents will get together again, but they try to achieve this as well. From the start, explain to your child that a reconciliation is unlikely to happen with phrases like: “We have tried hard in the past to make things work, and they have not.” It’s not pleasant to dash hopes, but in the long run it goes further in helping children deal with divorce.

Appreciate the changes your child will go through.

Divorce can mean a lot of disruption in a child’s life, not just emotionally. Helping kids deal with divorce means recognizing and helping her adjust to changes in logistics, routines, etc. Try saying: “It can be tough getting used to things like a new home/new friends/new school. I am here for you and will help you as much as I can.”

Support your child in every way.

You may be grieving your own loss or feeling other strong emotions. But helping children cope with divorce is mostly about making them feel secure. Assure your child you will never desert her and will be there for her always.

Don’t try to turn your child against the other parent.

Turning the other parent into the ‘bad parent’ even you feel s/he is at fault in your personal narrative does nothing for helping children with divorce and can, in fact, make the experience much more difficult for them. Instead, try explaining the situation like this: “Many children’s parents divorce. It is not because one is good and the other bad. Our marriage did not end because dad/mum was bad and I was good. We both accept responsibility for the break-up.”

*This article assumes a scenario of separation/divorce wherein the child is not at risk of domestic abuse.

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Written By Dr. Pervin Dadachanji

Dr. Pervin Dadachanji is a practicing psychiatrist with a special interest in child and adolescent psychiatry. She completed her MBBS and M.D. (Psychiatry) from Seth G.S. Medical College and K.E.M. Hospital, Mumbai. She has also done a stint in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department at The Royal Free Hospital, London. She has been in private practice since the past 20 years. She conducts parenting workshops for various parent groups, schools and nurseries in Mumbai. She also does workshops for children and adolescents on sexuality and body science. She has written a book called Recipes for Parenting and is consultant psychiatrist at Ummeed, a Child Development Centre in Mumbai.

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