5 Top Tips for Supporting Children Through Divorce

Written by Charlotte Gosden

What can I do to support my young child through my divorce?

Divorce is a difficult time for anyone, but for those who share young children, it can often be a lengthier and perhaps gloomier process with substantial impact on the children. Such a big change can mean they feel a mixture of emotions: confused, lonely, sad and angry. These emotions can often result in unusual behaviour, angry outbursts, tantrums or isolation.  So, what can be done to avoid this? Outlined below are a few pointers that can help to answer this question.

Be open (but not too open)

“I just wanted to know why she did it. ... I wanted some answers... and Mum didn’t want to give me any answers.” (Girl, 14) (1)

In many cases divorce can be confusing and daunting for children which mainly boils down to a lack of understanding or being kept out of the ‘loop’. With confusion often comes anger which can lead to lashing out or disruptive behaviour. Therefore, it is important to be as open as possible during this time. That being said, too much information can be just as bewildering, so simplification may be necessary. Additionally, such information should be kept as neutral as possible, so as to avoid negative opinions being exposed to the child(ren) which may cause rifts. This is particularly important for young children, as parents stand as essential role models to determine how to behave. 

Ask them how they are doing 

“ All my Mum’s family were like comforting her, and my Dad’s family was comforting him and I thought that me and Nick [brother] had NO-ONE to go to” (Girl, 12) (1)

This seems an obvious suggestion but during such a demanding time, it is often overlooked. A simple ‘how to do you feel about this?’ could mean the difference between an emotionally healthy vs. emotionally unhealthy child. For much younger children, the concept of feelings is still being constructed, so identifying emotions is hard. By asking them directly, children are forced to review how they feel and by having an open conversation, parent and child can begin to collaboratively identify their emotions. By doing this, the risk of your child(ren) experiencing emotional problems during this time is significantly reduced.

Reassure them that it is ok to cry

“Sometimes I get really upset and I cry in my room” (Girl, 10) (1)

This ties in neatly with the above. Reassuring your child(ren) it’s ok to cry is essential in again having a happy, emotionally healthy, child. Crying has been found to reduce the level of stress hormones in the body as well as producing endorphins that can help to improve mood. Thus, encouraging your child(ren) to release emotions in this way can be extremely beneficial for their wellbeing. 

Keep them busy

“I played a lot more football, because if I was angry or upset I’d just kick the ball at the wall and it would sort of cool me down.” (Boy, 10) (1)

Distraction from negative feelings or situations is often castoff as being maladaptive, as it ignores the source of the problem. However, particularly for young children, such distraction can often benefit them emotionally. It can reduce the long term risk of negative consequences, as less time is spent building up negative emotions and more time is spent focussing on positive ones. One key distraction that may be of most benefit is sport and exercise. If your child(ren) is already a keen sportsman/woman then this should be easily, but if not a simple trip to the park can be just as beneficial. Studies have consistently shown the advantages of exercise as it helps to reduce fatigue, improve concentration, as well as enhancing general cognitive function. These are particularly important when going through stressful situations such as divorce.

Books to Help

Lastly, it is worth pointing out that there are other resources available that you can use in conjunction with these other techniques. One of which are children’s books with a focus on parental divorce. Not only can this resource help to normalise the process of divorce but it can also prepare them for the emotional challenges that they may face.

(1)  Butler, I., Scanlan, L., Robinson, M., Douglas, G. and Murch, M. (2002). Children's involvement in their parents' divorce: implications for practice. Children & Society, 16(2), pp.89-102.