- Children react to news of their parents' divorce in many ways, including shock, grief, rage, or shutting down. They may also regress or act out.
- Most reactions are normal. Extreme reactions usually subside as the child adapts over the next few months.
- If a child does not return to his or her previous level of maturity, functioning, and behavior, the child may need help from a therapist.
You have had "the conversation" with your spouse, and you have decided when and how to tell your children that you are divorcing. But you worry about how your children will respond. You may dread the talk you need to have with your kids.
A child’s reactions are unique to the individual and the circumstances.
Most reactions are quite normal and most children adjust to the news over time. What is important is that you and your spouse tell your children together in a non-blaming way. Depending on your children’s ages, sense of security, or temperament, they may react in one or more of these ways:
Shock—your kids didn’t see this coming. This could be because you protected them from your arguments or conflicts, or perhaps the marital strife was repressed and not even expressed. They feel blindsided.
Surprise and disappointment—your kids aren’t shocked but may feel that “this isn’t how it is supposed to be.” They may feel betrayed by your decision, especially if they sensed it coming and you had tried to reassure them that you wouldn’t divorce.
Relief—your kids may have been living in a stormy home, with a lot of stress and loud arguments, or perhaps violence or addiction. It may be a relief to them to know that you are ending the relationship.
Sadness and grief—your kids might cry, and it’s okay for you to tear up too. No one ever plans to divorce when they stand at the altar saying their vows. It would be important to let them know that it is okay to cry, to be very sad. Don’t try to cheer them up, but do reassure them that they will be okay, even if this is hard.
Anxiety, confusion, fear, and worry—your kids will have questions, lots of them. They may want to know why this is happening, whom to blame, or whom to comfort. They will especially want to know how the decision will affect them. Will they have to move? Will they get to see both of you? Will they have to change schools? You can reassure them by letting them know what will change and what will stay the same, as well as the things you haven’t yet figured out.
Anger—you may sit helplessly as your child runs from the room and locks himself in his bedroom. This child needs some time to process the news, and you can reassure her that when she is ready to talk, that you will be there.
Shutting down—this child may simply not want to talk about it at all. He may not even want to hear about it. He will deny that he has questions and may deny that he has feelings. Perhaps she is overwhelmed with emotions and needs some time to metabolize the news.
All of these responses are normal when you first give your children the news of your decision to divorce. There will likely be many more conversations in the coming days, weeks, and months, as each child digests the news in his or her own way.
So how will you know whether your child needs help?
When is their reaction not normal? It is normal for younger children to regress, for example. They may need more cuddles, may wet the bed again, or seem emotionally sensitive or fragile.
Children may act out their emotions by picking fights with a sibling or provoking you in other ways. Their behavior at school may deteriorate, or their grades may drop.
Other children simply close down. It is as if they turn inward, away from you, and even away from their friends and school life.
Teens may withdraw from their activities and appear depressed.
Changes in behavior are normal — unless they last more than a few months.
Over a short time, your children should return to a baseline of what was normal for that child. The out-going child returns to friends or the active child returns to sports with his/her usual enthusiasm.
If your child has not returned to his or her previous level of maturity, functioning, and behavior, it means that he is struggling with the changes in the family and hasn’t been able to adapt. A consultation with a child therapist would be the best next step for you.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2021