Going through a divorce can be extremely tough on our mental health. One of the first things a lot of parents worry about when they begin considering divorce is how it will affect their kids.
Deciding to end your marriage comes with big life changes for your whole family. You and your spouse will make important decisions regarding living arrangements, custody arrangements, finances, and co-parenting.
Being on the same page when it comes to parenting is important to support your kid’s emotional well-being during your divorce. Divorce is never perfect, but there are ways we can help our kids cope with divorce and signs of struggle we can look out for concerning their mental health during this difficult time in their life.
Whether you have younger children or teenagers, kids may experience a vast range of emotions—from confusion, sadness, guilt, anger, and anxiety, to a deep sense of loss—when they learn their parents are separating. In some cases, especially if the parents had a particularly volatile or tumultuous relationship, kids may even experience depression.
Talking to Kids About Divorce
Make a Parenting Plan Together
Before you tell your children about your plans to divorce it’s important to come up with a parenting plan together. No matter how difficult going through a separation and divorce may be, one of the most important things we can do to protect our children’s emotional health is to be on the same page with our parenting.
Divorce is confusing enough for kids, so imagine how hearing two different versions of why you’re getting divorced will add to their confusion and leave them feeling even more vulnerable.
How, When, and What to Tell Your Kids About Your Divorce
Agree on what you will tell your children, how, and when. Wisely choose the time you will tell them, like the beginning of a weekend so they have a few days to process their feelings before going back to school. Avoid telling them on any special dates or near holidays so they don’t always associate this big life event—the time in their life when their parents got divorced—with a holiday, birthday, anniversary, or other special dates.
Be sure to only tell your children of your plans to divorce once you are sure the decision is final. It can be confusing to kids to see their parents separated and then back together again multiple times and can raise false hope.
Telling them together and allowing for some time together as a family afterward allows them to process the information in a safe environment with the people they love, trust, and depend on around them.
When deciding what to tell them, keep the reason simple, without going into too much detail, and age-appropriate. Reassuring them that they are safe and loved and that both parents will continue to be in their lives. Explain any changes that are being made and how that will affect their daily life.
9 Ways to Support Your Children’s Mental Health During Divorce
- Stick to a Routine
Maintaining a routine with your kids during this uncertain time can help them feel safe. With an established routine, they know what to expect from day to day. Consistency is key because it allows them to feel in control of their life and may even reduce stress because they can predict what’s coming next.
- Speak With Integrity
Don’t badmouth the other parent in front of your kids. Speaking negatively about their mother or father in front of a child can be hurtful and harmful. A child may feel forced to “take sides” if they hear their parents say bad or mean things about each other. This bickering behavior may also leave your child wondering: ”Am I going to be able to keep seeing both of my parents?”
Help your child feel safe in the knowledge that both parents will continue to be in their life and never put your child in the middle of your arguments leaving them in a position where they feel like they have to choose between the two of you.
- Learn to Co-Parent Peacefully
If you and your spouse are yelling at each other when interacting in front of the kids it will cause more stress on them and could even lead to behavior issues and resentment. Learning to co-parent peacefully is a skill that will benefit your whole family.
- Keep Adult Conversations Private
Keep conversations about the divorce with your spouse private. Navigating divorce is stressful for adults, kids don’t need to be privy to details and disagreements along the way.
- Keep Communications with the Kids Simple, Honest, and Open
Be open and ready to answer questions from your children about the divorce as they arise and try to keep answers simple, age-appropriate, and honest.
- Be a Good Listener and Validate Their Feelings
Listen to their concerns. They need to know you understand how this is affecting them.
Make it clear that you accept how they’re feeling. For younger children use language that helps them recognize and label their feelings. Reassure them it’s not their fault and that both of you will continue to be in their life.
- Give Kids the Space and Privacy to Process the Grief They are Feeling
Children will move through their own grieving process in their own time and may need a little more space. Their parents’ divorce is something that changes their lives forever.
- Take Time to be Emotionally Available and Spend Quality Time Together
Take time to bond with your kids during this time. Some parents may feel blindsided by a divorce which can send one parent into fight or flight mode which can be especially harmful to the children. A child may feel vulnerable and alone if they aren’t able to connect with both of their parents during this time.
As challenging as it is to go through a divorce, it’s important to make time to spend with your children for them to have fun and to let kids just be kids for a little while without worry.
The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children
When parents divorce, the kids may be at risk for certain mental health challenges. They may experience sadness, confusion, anger, guilt, or depression.
Keep an Eye Out for These Signs That Your Child May Need More Support
- Increased Stress
Learning ways to help your child cope with your divorce may help to alleviate the stress and anxiety they’re experiencing. If they seem increasingly stressed it’s a good idea to seek support for them.
Sadness is a natural response for a child learning that their parents are getting divorced. If your child doesn’t seem to bounce back and experiences prolonged depression and anxiety, it’s important to seek professional help. Your child’s pediatrician is a good place to start.
- Sleep Issues
Sleep deprivation can affect your child’s mental health and their brain’s ability to function healthily. Conversely, too much sleep can be a sign your child is struggling with depression. Try to help your child get on a regular sleeping schedule to support healthy sleep habits.
- Not Eating Well
Although it may be natural for a child to temporarily lose their appetite when they first hear the upsetting news that their parents are getting a divorce, any prolonged issues with your child not eating enough or binging to deal with stress should be addressed swiftly. Seek help from your child’s pediatrician as soon as possible to avoid issues around food consumption developing into an eating disorder.
- Academically Struggling
Kids may be having a hard time focusing in school because their mind is preoccupied thinking about all the changes divorce is bringing to their family and life. At home, they may not be able to focus on homework or projects because the divorce is all-consuming for them.
- Behavior Issues
Your child may feel like they have no control over the fact their parents are getting divorced. All these big feelings may manifest in behavior issues. They may become oppositional and argumentative, or unwilling to follow your house rules in order to gain control over some aspect of their life.
- Risky Behavior
Some adolescents may engage in risky behavior as a coping mechanism to deal with their parent’s divorce. Alcohol, marijuana, vaping, tobacco, sexual activity, self-harm, and drug use are among the risky behaviors some kids may be attracted to.
Seek the Professional Help You and Your Children Need When Going Through a Divorce
Going through a divorce is a difficult journey both for parents and their children. Create opportunities for yourself and your children to spend time with the important people in your life like friends and family. You don’t have to face divorce alone and neither do your children.
Know that you can call on professionals to help you get through your divorce. Doctors, pediatricians, support groups, and therapists can be invaluable to help you and your children navigate the emotional journey of divorce.
Furthermore, an experienced divorce attorney can help negotiate a separation and property settlement agreement for you. Our Virginia divorce attorneys will also help you get a fast, easy divorce without having to deal with the stress of going to court.
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