Helping children through divorce

Are you wondering how to help your children through divorce? You know that you should say and do the right things for them but it’s difficult to know what that is. And you may feel that whatever your best efforts, your ex will mess things up by saying the wrong thing.

Divorce is difficult enough for adults but where children are involved there are several extra layers of complexity. One of the things that parents can usually agree on when divorcing is that the children shouldn’t suffer – but they differ in their interpretation of what this means.

The good news is that

  • Children are resilient,
  • They don’t care about your life nearly as much as you think (not that they are uncaring it’s just they are in their own world a lot of the time)
  • They are good at developing their own resources once a few basics are in place

So how to help children with divorce?

1. Talk to them. Tell them what is going on, using age-appropriate language and age-appropriate information. You do have to tell them there’s a change in living arrangements. You do have to explain that mummy and daddy won’t be together in the same way as before. With younger children you don’t have to explain the ‘why’ – if they have an explanation for the immediate changes they see around them they won’t wonder ‘why’.

With older children, say from the age of 10 up, it can be difficult to gauge how much to share. You can say things like ‘Well you know mummy and daddy haven’t been getting on’ because they will know this – and then you can decide how much else to tell them.

Teenagers and young adult children can be surprisingly perceptive. Teenagers at the grunt stage may not say much but they see a lot. Older children may have a boyfriend or girlfriend of their own and can sympathise with a relationship that is going wrong. So they may see things more clearly than you do and can be unexpectedly supportive.

Children of all ages will be sensitive to the atmosphere in the home and can sense unhappiness. So for them it may be easier in a way when you get your difficulties out in the open.

2. Listen to them. Once you have explained to the children about mummy and daddy’s new living arrangements take time to listen to what their fears are. They may not say very much in the beginning, as they will be absorbing the news. But they will think about what it means to them so be open (at any time) to have a really perceptive question put to you.

My youngest didn’t say very much when I told him we were splitting up, but a couple of weeks later, while getting something out of the microwave, he said, ‘You know you said you and Dad were getting divorced?’

My parental antennae were twitching; I could tell a significant concern was going to follow.

‘Yes’ I said tentatively.

‘Well, will I be appointed a guardian ad litem?’

You’, I said, ‘have been watching way too many episodes of Law & Order!’

It was funny that he’d come out with such an obscure legal question but clearly he’d been influenced by TV shows that show children being put in the care of the state or being appointed a legal guardian. I had to reassure him, no, he’d still be stuck with Mum and Dad!

3. Explain to them what is going to stay the same. If they know that, in spite of divorce, they will still go to the same school or stay in the same house they will be reassured. If you and your ex can agree to keep things as stable as possible for the children this will help a lot.

If you are sharing care of the children and they spend one week with you and the next with the ex, make sure they have time and space to talk about what works and what doesn’t work. You might feel they now have two homes, but they may feel they have none, as they don’t have a fixed base.

By listening and discussing what really matters to them, you will find out how to make each place feel like home. It may be they need a favourite toy or they get to watch their favourite TV programme wherever they are. Or they need each parent to hug them before they go to school (aged 13+ they’d probably prefer the opposite!).

Developing your own coaching skills of listening, asking questions and being open to what they want will help you and your children in divorce.

Liz Copeland, The Divorce Mentor, coaches and mentors people through and beyond divorce – find lots or resources at


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