The parents’ guide to talking about divorce
These strategies can help big changes
If you’re going through a divorce, you’re likely going through an emotional rollercoaster. The stages of divorce are actually very similar to the stages of grief. But you’re not the only one who will need to process the life changes — divorce affects kids emotionally in a big way, too.
Research has documented that parental divorce or separation is associated with an increased risk for child and adolescent adjustment problems, including academic difficulties (e.g., lower grades), disruptive behaviors, and depressed mood.
Many parents grapple with fear, frustration, and guilt about how divorce will affect their children. However, parents can help prepare their kids to adjust to the changes stemming from a divorce or separation. By employing these steps, you can reduce the effects on their mental health, and everyone can begin to heal.
- Plan to tell the kids together: Such a substantial life change should come from both parents. Pick a quiet evening at home to break the news in private. Be sure to put away all distractions, and allow plenty of time for questions and discussion as a family.
- Acknowledge feelings for the whole family: Emphasize that this is a tough time for the entire family, and share how both parents are feeling: Share that you’re also feeling sad, anxious, or scared. It can feel counterintuitive — like you need to be strong for them — but psychologically, it’s helpful to them to see you are feeling many of the same emotions they are.
- Prep, prep, prep: As soon as the next steps are determined, share them with the kids with as much notice as possible. For example, if one parent will be moving to a new house and the kids will begin splitting their time between parents, prepare them for that big change. “Starting in MONTH, dad is going to move to a new house located here [show on a map]. You’ll be spending weekends there with him and weekdays here with me. I’ll pick you up at TIME every week.”
- Work together: While you and your co-parent may not be partners anymore, you are still parents together — and will be for life. It’s critical that you work together to be effective co-parents. You may have to establish new communication methods and patterns for your new situation. Figure those out early, as the sooner you do, the better and smoother the transition will be for the kids. Finally, be cautious of how you speak about the other parent when they’re not around — try not to speak negatively about them in front of the kids (this means any conversations they can overhear, too!).
- Look for signs of struggle: As all-consuming as your feelings can be during this time, keep an eye on your child for any signs they may be struggling in the coming months. Some children show signs right after informing them. Others may appear fine, and signs may surface months later. Common behaviors or symptoms could include:
- Struggling academically
- Behavioral problems or personality changes
- Mood swings
- Less socializing with friends
- Less cooperation with everyday tasks
- Decreased self-esteem
- Increased irrational fears
- Lack of interest in communication
Finally, ask for help when you need it: This time will be one of the toughest your kids go through. It’s OK to ask for help if you need it. School counselors, peer groups, and even Sesame Street (yes, really!) can be resources for you. If either parent is struggling with co-parenting or if kids are starting to show signs of distress, it is important to get a therapist involved early in the process. It will help with a smoother transition and will show your family that you are prepared with resources to help with life's challenges.Therapy, especially therapy with a whole-family approach like Bend Health, is an opportunity to heal together with the help of a trained professional.
No matter what happens, you’ll always be their parent, and with the steps above, a little time, and a lot of love, you’ll all be OK.