Helping Children Cope With Divorce
It may not be easy, but we will be okay.
Posted May 12, 2016
A pediatrician once asked me to help a six-year-old named Sam, who was struggling with anger and sadness over his parents’ divorce. His mother and father had separated nine months before, and he was fighting at school and crying himself to sleep nightly. After I talked with Sam weekly for six weeks, he began to feel better and calmed down at school. His parents, who worked hard at co-parenting, had both noticed the change and shared that information with me and, on my advice, with him. Sam seemed surprised. “You talk about me with Dad?” he said. Mom answered, “We got some help understanding your upset about our divorce, and we are cooperating better about you [sic].” Sam replied, “Good. Now I can get over it!”
Nearly half of America’s married couples face the likelihood of divorce. Most of these couples have children, most of whom will be affected, though it is hard to predict how. Here are a few things to keep in mind when helping children cope with divorce.
- Although the stigma of divorce stings less these days, partly because it is so common, children almost never think it is as good an idea as the parents who seek it. Don’t insult them by trying to talk them into agreeing with your point of view about its benefits or its hazards. Children, especially the young ones, love having their families together and often feel anxious, angry and saddened when they begin to come apart.
- Most parents work at separating and divorcing without traumatizing their children. Children often recover from this loss without serious emotional scarring and with their ability to trust in relationships intact, especially when parents acknowledge how their children are feeling about this event and when children trust the adults to hear them out and love them through it.
- One of the most difficult aspects of divorce to young children, besides a change in family income and lifestyle that may accompany a divorce, is the threat to (or in some cases the end of) their parents’ friendship with each other. This particular loss may leave children feeling more alone and worried that they might be next.
- Boys and girls typically respond differently to divorce. Boys show their distress more obviously with behavioral, school or social troubles, like Sam. Girls may seem okay at first with few outward signs of distress but may suffer the effects later when they enter their first close relationship and feel overwhelmed by self-doubt, suspiciousness and fear of abandonment.
Children who handle divorce best are the ones whose parents honor their children’s needs above their own, are able to work out fair financial and parenting plans and, most importantly, help each other be the best parents they can be.
Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).