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Tips for Divorcing Parents

Every Family Is Different

What's the best way to help your family get through a divorce? Every situation — and every family — is different. But some stress reducing guidelines might make the adjustment a bit easier.

These suggestions can make the process less painful for kids, teens, and families. Parents will need to interpret them in their own ways; honesty, sensitivity, self-control, and time itself will help the healing process. Be patient — not everyone's timetable is the same.

Helping Kids Manage Their Feelings

Encourage kids to openly discuss their feelings — positive or negative — about what's happening.

It's important for divorcing — and already divorced — parents to sit down with their kids and encourage them to say what they're thinking and feeling. But you'll need to keep this separate from your own feelings. Most often, children experience a sense of loss of family and may blame you or the other parent — or both — for what is going on in their lives. So, you'll really need to be prepared to answer questions your kids might raise or to address their concerns.

Make talking about the divorce and how it's affecting your kids an ongoing process. As kids get older and become more mature, they might have questions or concerns that they hadn't thought of earlier. Even if it seems like you've gone over the same topics before, keep the dialogue open. If possible, sit down with the other parent and plan how you're going to talk to your child or children about what is going on.

If you feel like you may get too upset, ask someone else (a relative, maybe) to talk to them. It's OK for kids to see their parents feel sad or upset, but getting very emotional can make kids feel responsible for their parents' feelings. Group programs for kids of divorce run by schools or faith-based organizations are an excellent resource for kids and families who need some help to get through these early stages.

It's natural for kids to have many emotions about a divorce. They might feel guilty and imagine that they "caused" the problem. This is particularly true for the many kids who overheard their parents arguing about them. Kids and teenagers may feel angry or frightened, or worried about their future.

Although kids may struggle with a divorce for quite some time, the real impact is usually felt over about a 2- to 3-year period. During this time, some will be able to voice their feelings but, depending on their age and development, other kids just won't have the words. They may instead act out or be depressed. For school-age kids, this is usually evident when their grades drop or they lose interest in activities. For younger children, these feelings are often expressed during play, too.

It may be tempting to tell a child not to feel a certain way, but kids (and adults, for that matter) have a right to their feelings. And if you try to force a "happy face," your kids may be less likely to share their true feelings with you.

Taking the High Road

Keep adult conflict and arguments away from the kids.

This is one of the hardest things to do. But it's important never to say bad things about your ex in front of your kids, or within earshot. You'd be surprised at how good kids can be to picking up on these things. Research shows that the single biggest factor in long-term adjustment for kids of divorce is the level of parental conflict they are exposed to. It puts kids in really difficult positions if they want to or have to take sides, or listen to negative things said about one of their parents.

It's equally important to acknowledge real events. If, for example, one spouse has simply abandoned the family by moving out, you need to acknowledge what has happened. It isn't your responsibility to explain the ex-spouse's behavior — but if your kids want to ask you questions, it's important to answer as neutrally and as factually as possible.

Try not to use kids as messengers or go-betweens, especially when you're feuding.

Even though it is tempting, don't use your kids as messengers. There are plenty of other ways to communicate with your ex-partner. Also, resist questioning your child about what is happening in the other household — kids resent it when they feel that they're being asked to "spy" on the other parent. Wherever possible, communicate directly with the other parent about relevant matters, such as scheduling, visitation, health issues, or school problems.

Expect resistance and difficulties as kids adjust to a new mate or the mate's kids.

New relationships, blended families, and remarriages are among the most difficult aspects of the divorce process. A new, blended family can add more stress for a while, and can cause another period of adjustment. Keeping lines of communication open, allowing one-on-one time for parents and kids, and watching for signs of stress can help prevent problems developing.

Getting Help

Figure out how to reduce stress in your life to help your family.

Support from friends, relatives, church and religious groups, and organizations such as Parents Without Partners can help parents and their kids adjust to separation and divorce. Kids can meet others who've developed successful relationships with separated parents and can confide in each other. Getting support can help parents find solutions to all kinds of practical and emotional challenges.

Whenever possible, kids should be encouraged to have as positive an outlook on both parents as they can. Even under the best of circumstances, separation and divorce can be painful and disappointing for many kids.

Parents also need to remember to take care of themselves. Find your own way to reduce stress in your life by finding supportive friends and asking for help when you need it. Try to keep some old family traditions, while building new memories to share. Showing your kids how to take good care of mind and body during difficult times can help them become more resilient in their own lives.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2013