A Broken Family: Helping Your Children Emotionally Cope with Separation and Divorce

Sad young girl staring out of a window

Divorcing or divorced parents, as well as a child of separated parents, will know that divorce and separation is an incredibly challenging and emotionally turbulent time.

While an adult has life experience, perspective, and emotional insight, a child may feel as if their entire world is crumbling when their parents are undergoing separation.

The breakup of a family is an overwhelming roller-coaster ride of emotions. For a child, these emotions can be confusing, terrifying, and just plain exhausting. They likely feel shocked, sad, anxious, and, in some cases, guilty.

Navigating separation as a parent is never an easy process.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps that you can take to make your child feel heard, appreciated, loved, and safe.

Remember that a little effort goes a long way when supporting the emotional journey of your child during a separation or divorce. 

We’re here to offer advice on how you can reduce the emotional toll and help your children move forward too.

Be Intentional About Your Communication

As applies to most uncomfortable or emotionally charged situations, you should remain mindful with regards to the ways you choose to express yourself. You also need to be very aware of what information you choose to relay and where and when you will do this.

This intentionality should be implemented from the very beginning. When you tell your child(ren) that you are separating, it’s ideal if both parents are present. Depending on the age of your child, you should strike a balance between honesty and restraint when explaining the reasons for your separation.

Furthermore, this applies to your communication throughout, and even after, the process of separation. Speak about difficult information and negotiate practicalities in a safe and private space and at an appropriate time. Maintain a gentle and supportive tone and, if they are willing, encourage them to engage equally in the dialogue.

Remind Them That You Still Love Them

While you know in your heart of hearts that you love your child unconditionally and eternally, they might lose sight of this fact in the midst of your separation or divorce. Make sure that you express your love through both words and actions.

Furthermore, this expression of emotional tenderness shows them that it is okay to be emotionally vulnerable, compassionate, and honest.

Investing energy into the expression of your love for your children will do wonders for their sense of security and self-confidence.

Reassure Them They Are Not to Blame

A child, particularly a younger child, may feel that a parent’s separation is their fault. They tend to think that divorce is a symptom of a lack of love for them. While you know this is not at all the case, they might need some reassurance.

Communicate, in a gentle manner, that your separation is an adult issue. There is absolutely nothing they could have done to negatively influence or prevent the outcome.

Although it is hard, this also cements the notion that your divorce is final. They can then begin to grieve and commence the slow yet necessary journey towards acceptance.

Encourage Your Child to Speak About Their Emotions

As adults with life experience, we have come to learn that speaking about our feelings is one of the most cathartic and therapeutic means of processing and moving beyond emotional issues and events.

If you have a younger child, they likely do not have the vocabulary nor the emotional faculties to grapple with the complex combination of sadness, anger, anxiety, and dread.

You are, however, able to support them as they learn how to speak about what they are experiencing.

Remember to lead by example, hence the first point about intentional communication, and let them know that emotional vulnerability is safe, courageous, and healthy.

Be As Honest As Reasonably Possible

Even if your child is relatively young, they are likely more perceptive than they might let on.

If tensions are brewing beneath the surface, they will almost certainly pick up on the fact that something is off.

Maintaining an honest channel of communication prevents the unfortunate possibility that they may internalize tensions and, without fair cause or reason, feel that they are to blame for this unhappiness.

Naturally, it’s not always appropriate to be completely transparent about everything that has contributed to your separation, nor the specifics of what your divorce will entail. Use your own judgement to differentiate what is helpful from what is hurtful when communicating with your child.

Do Not Bad-Mouth the Other Parent

This is immensely important.

As tempting as it may be in a moment of passionate anger, do not burden your children with the weight of your own frustration and hurt. It will inevitably pressure them into feeling that they must pick a side and remain exclusively loyal to that one parent.

A child, no matter how young or old, should never have to feel that their love and appreciation for a parent comes at the cost of a poor relationship with the other.

Respect the fact that, at the end of the day, your child has two parents. They have the autonomy to determine what form their relationship with both will take without excessive external influence.

Do Not Communicate with the Other Parent Through Your Child

This is one of the most common mistakes made by parents who are going through a divorce. If your separation has been a bitter and unempathetic one, speaking directly to your ex-partner might be the last thing you wish to do. It is, however, of paramount importance that you remain aware of the fact that you are the parent in the situation, and you need to take responsibility.

Speak directly to your child’s other parent instead of putting them in the highly uncomfortable position of the messenger. They are probably anxious enough as it is. Enforcing unfair responsibilities on them will only encroach upon their ability to emotionally process the events.

Encourage Gentle Transitions

Moving between parents in the initial stages of a separation can be one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences for a child. As much as we acknowledge that saying goodbye is challenging for you too, try to support moments of peaceful transition between homes.

Help them gather what they want to take ahead of time, so as to alleviate stress. Reassure them that you will be seeing them soon, and you are just a phone call away if they need to speak to you.

That said, give them the necessary space with their other parent while they are away. When they return home, resist the urge to bombard them with questions about your ex or their time there. They likely need a moment to settle in and rest.

Seek Professional Assistance

For some reason, many families seem to feel that seeking professional help is a sign of failure or weakness. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Family counsellors and therapists are the most effective means of working through the emotional turmoil —both individually and collectively.

If you’re finding that communication between yourself and your child is strained or non-existent, a therapist can be an excellent mediator of constructive conversation. In this safe and neutral space, you can gain valuable insight into your child’s emotional state and needs.

If you have the available resources, encourage your child to speak to a professional counsellor— preferably one that specializes in family troubles and divorce.

This process will consolidate, validate, and work through their emotions whilst equipping them with the necessary vocabulary to unpack and work through whatever they may be feeling.

Routines Could be Comforting

Naturally, there are several rather dramatic changes occurring in the life of both you and your children.

During this chaos that is an inevitable by-product of the process of separation or divorce, a bit of structure is comforting and oftentimes, absolutely necessary.

Try to establish some routines at home. However big or small, this stability is immensely comforting to a child who feels their world has been turned upside down.

Furthermore, if your child is moving between your house and the house of their other parent, try to structure this in a way that suits everyone as best as possible.

Knowing when they will be staying where helps them to mentally prepare. It also allows them to feel that their feelings and priorities are considered. 

Patience is Key

We feel complete empathy for the fact that when children are involved, separation or divorce is an emotionally grueling and utterly exhausting process.

There may be days where you feel nothing will ever be easy or joyful again. Trust us when we say that happier days are on the horizon. In time, you will move on, and even start dating again. Your children will acclimatize, and a new sense of normalcy will establish itself. It’s just how you handle the transition and equip them to handle the way forward that counts.

In the end, you will be so grateful that you were intentional about the ways that you chose to support your children’s emotional journey throughout the separation process—albeit a demanding endeavor.

This practice of patience should apply to your children as well as yourself. You deserve the space to validate your own frustration, sadness, and fear. Have faith that it only gets easier with time.

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