Divorce with Kids: Four Steps to Minimize the Impact

Divorce with kids in mind. Here we discuss how to minimize the effects of divorce on children by taking good care of your own needs, explaining divorce in an understandable way to your children, listen to feelings, don’t try to fix them, and set up valuable routines.  What not to do?  That’s here as well.

(1) Model Self-Care for Your Children During the Divorce and After the Divorce.

The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory finds that divorce is the second most stressful life event, second only to the death of a spouse. But if you’re doing a poor job of self-care, you probably aren’t doing a good job helping your kids survive divorce either. Divorce is the end of cruising comfortably. There will be rough air ahead. Put on your oxygen mask first, and make sure your kids have your undivided attention.

Self-care is a matter of interpretation,  but there are a few essential ideas that tend to make everyone’s list of best practices:

  • Take care of your body.
  • Watch your alcohol, recreational drug, and comfort food intake.
  • Don’t neglect daily medications or scheduled medical and dental appointments.
  • Get an appropriate amount of sleep.
  • Eat high-quality food.
  • Move. Get some sort of exercise.
  • Find an emotional support system that you can rely on.
  • Engage in stimulating, fun or pleasant activities with your kids, your support system, and when appropriate…alone.
  • Remember that you can grow as a result of your struggle to do your best for everyone involved.

2. Your Kids Deserve a Detailed Explanation. But Emphasize Four Specific Ideas.

Your very first task is to tell them what happened. But make it clear that:

  • They are not responsible for your divorce.
  • You and your spouse are fully responsible for your divorce, and their experience of it.
  • You both love them as much as before, and you will both be working extra hard to make sure that they get that message every day.
  • Your divorce is an event that will unfold over time. Questions will come up and be answered. You won’t leave them anxious and worried.

The effects of divorce on children will be eased if they get this message.

But, hey this conversation is just getting started. Help your kids survive divorce by opening up emotional space for questions. But don’t read anything into it if they don’t have any at first.

Their ability to process this massive event depends on their developmental age, their emotional reactivity, other stressors in their lives, etc. They will establish their own pace for processing these changes.

Don’t squander opportunities to address their issues. Answer their questions. Tell them that they can always ask either of you a question, or express a feeling. Sadness and grief are ok as well.

3. You Don’t Have to Promise to Fix Every Feeling. You Promise to Put Them First.

Divorced dads, in particular, might be tempted to jump into a full problem-solving mode.

Men are like that. Try not to show up that way, particularly with your daughters.

Your kids might want to talk about uncomfortable feelings. That doesn’t mean that they expect you to fix them.. just listen.

When they complain about a fact on the ground, like your reduced availability, tell them that you don’t like it either and that you will both work together to make the best of it.

Help your kids survive divorce by confirming your love and support, but don’t ever let your anxiety prompt you to overpromise and under-deliver. Your word means something. Keep it with your kids always. Especially now.

help your kids survive divorce

Sometimes divorcing parents over-promise out of a sense of guilt or increased anxiety. Don’t fall into that trap.

4. To Help Your Kids Survive Divorce, Routines Should Be Sacred. 

Your children are stressed about all of the changes both real and imagined. Minimize the effects of divorce on children by working with your ex-partner to co-parent with a sense of routine and predictable order. This is most important in an area that can protect your children from the ravages of stress… their peer group activities.

If divorce requires relocation, acknowledge this fact for the huge stressor that it is. You can minimize the effects of divorce on children by getting established with a new peer group and new activities as soon as possible. This could prevent serious behavior problems down the line.

The Worst, Most Flat out Stupid Thing You Could Do Now?

That’s easy. If your kids had a ringside seat to the parental prize fights… give ’em a break. Let their little nervous systems calm down.

Fighting in front of the kids is the single most toxic and preventable behavioral mistake you could make right now. Protect your kids from divorce by becoming skilled at co-parenting.

If your divorce has given your kids a break from those prize fights… good. It’s probably the only consolation on their plate. They should never have seen that in the first place.

But here’s the problem.

You and your former spouse might have more stuff to juggle and work out now as you finalize a divorce routine. Fighting in front of the kids now won’t help your kids survive divorce. But it will add stress to their already bewildering grief.

They have it tough enough already. Help your kids survive divorce by putting their needs first.

If you lack skill in co-parenting, take a class. Read a book. Have a heart-to-heart talk about fighting.

Reach a mutual agreement about how to really help your kids survive divorce. Get a therapist if need be.

Minimize the effects of divorce on children by having some semblance of discipline in how you relate to each other in front of the kids.

I don’t care if your partner is speaking ill of you. Don’t triangulate and retaliate through your children. Contain the damage. Even if you think your partner is responsible for 100% of it. Kids can smell simmering rage and hostility.

If you think you’re hiding it…you’re wrong.

Think about the long game here. What do I mean? Let’s do a thought experiment.

I want you to imagine that it’s 25 years from now. One of your kids is at a casino in Vegas with some friends, and maybe they’re with their significant other too. They’re relaxed and loose, having a good time.

The topic of what happened to you when your parents divorced comes up. They all share war stories.

What do you think your kid will say about your integrity, resilience, patience, and skill? Who will be the hero in their story? You are writing that story today.

Minimize the Impact

MORE: Do Children Outgrow the Impacts of Divorce?

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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