A Helpful Guide to Divorce and Children

Amy Aitman
May 31, 2017

You've decided to divorce. You're moving on. But what about your kids? Here's a guide to help them through the process.

You really tried to save your marriage, but now it's over. You've moved out, filed the papers and are sorting out a new life for yourself and for your kids as well. You've got emotions to process, and so do they. What do you do next?

Here's some insight from experts on divorce and children with tips on getting them through:

Start Talking -- "Get" Their Side

Once you know the divorce is over and there is no chance of reconciling, you need to tell your kids. The first thing you should tell them is that "divorce is a permanent decision -- one that is not going to change," says Christina McGhee, a nationally recognized divorce coach with a master's degree in social work and the author of Parenting Apart. With all the changes your kids have been going through, they need some reassurance that this is going to be permanent.

Next, you need to know how your kids really feel. Changing schools, finding new friends, feeling torn between both parents – these are the things they are worried about. "Kids are likely to see the divorce as a huge upheaval in their lives if the divorce brings additional unwanted changes, such as changing schools, moving away from a parent to another state and leaving friends and familiar community," says Dr. Richard A. Warshak, a psychologist and the author of Divorce Poison.

"Keep communication open with children and realize that there are so many things that kids feel but seldom tell their parents," says Dr. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, a clinical psychologist and the author of Putting Children First. It is up to parents to keep talking to their children about their divorce. "Kids worry, 'What will happen to me?'" she says. "Young children, in particular, worry that if the marital bond could dissolve -- if mom and dad could stop loving each other -- what's the guarantee they will continue to love their children?"

Other Tips For Helping Kids Move Forward

  • Avoid Extremes
    Regarding divorce and children, it can be tough to keep things in perspective during such an emotional time, but "parents should avoid extremes," Dr. Warshak says. "They should refer to the divorce as a sad event, but not devastating. They should invite children to express their thoughts and feelings about the divorce and show understanding of the kids' experience. Most important -- parents should avoid blaming the other parent for the divorce or badmouthing the other parent."
  • Don't Use "Legalese."
    Take legalese words out of your vocabulary when talking to your kids, McGhee suggests. "Words like 'visitation' imply that kids are only visiting with one parent, that time with this parent is fleeting, temporary and very, very precious," she notes. Even if the kids spend less time at one home, they should think of it as their home. You don't want to become "the heavy" parent, while your spouse gets to be the entertainer, but that's what can happen. "How do you treat guests? You entertain them," she points out.
  • Contain the Conflict
    "Negative comments about a child's other parent is like an attack on half of the child's DNA," Dr. Pedro-Carroll says. "Children have a right to love both parents and not be caught in the middle of adult issues."
  • Give Kids Two Homes, Not Just One
    For younger children, McGhee says, "A great way to structure your kids' lives in both homes is to create color-coded calendars so that they know where they are going to be and what they are going to be doing in both homes." Create as much normalcy and structure, in both homes, to give your kids predictability in their everyday lives.
  • Love Your Kids -- Big-Time!
    Since kids are naturally on shaky ground, wondering about the constancy of their parents' love for them, it's important to express that your love for them is eternal. It will never end. Kids need to know you love them during this time more than ever. The bottom line, according to Dr. Warshak: "Don't make your kids pay the price for your failed marriage. Love your children more than you resent your ex."

Want more tips? Read How to Explain Divorce to Kids.

Amy Aitman is a freelance writer and mommy blogger who often writes about family dynamics and parenting practices. Follow her on Twitter.

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