A divorce can be a very difficult process to cope with as a couple, as it implies a grieving process in which anxiety, fear, sadness and big changes are the main protagonists.

However, what can make this process more difficult is having children who are inevitably involved. In fact, a separation that isn’t dealt with in a healthy way can lead to negative consequences for children, such as a decrease in school performance, social distancing, feelings of despair and loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Moreover, children’s age plays a key role in the emotional impact that the divorce may have on them:

  • Children up to 4-5 years old
    They may feel confused by the new changes that are taking place, not quite understanding why the separation is happening or why they must divide their time between each parent.
  • Children from 5 to 12 years old
    Within this age group, it is frequent that children feel guilty because of the separation, which can then make them feel frustration and sadness.
  • Teenagers:
    The initial emotion that can appear in teenagers is anger. Now instead of blaming themselves, what usually happens is that they blame one or both parents for the divorce and for the changes this implies for them.

Therefore, in order to protect these children in the best possible way, from psychological harm due to the separation, it is necessary to attend to the following:

Communicating the news:

The way the children receive this news is extremely important in order to start this process off on the right foot, and can play a big role in their coping skills for the rest of the separation.

Therefore, it is especially important to follow these guidelines:

  • Right time and place: This must be in a safe and calm place, where they have the time and space to listen thoroughly, express themselves and ask certain questions they may have.
  • Content which is true and with limited details: the children must know what is happening and how things are going to change, adjusting their expectations adequately. However, you must be careful not to give too many details, taking into account the importance of setting boundaries to avoid involving the children in the parents’ issues, and giving them responsibilities and information that don’t belong to them.
  • Same message on both sides: it is extremely important that they hear the same version from both parents, which is why it is advisable that you speak with each other beforehand to agree on the message that you want to convey.
  • Emotional care: sometimes children can feel guilty and frustrated for what is happening, consequently taking the blame for the divorce. Therefore, it is very important to attend to their emotional needs, making it clear that this has nothing to do with them and it doesn’t affect the love you both have for them.

Adapting to the separation:

You must remember that this is a drastic change for the children, the same way it is for the parents, and in order to achieve the healthiest adaptation it is important to remember:

  • Little change within big change:
    There are going to be inevitable changes, such as two different houses and separate time with each parent, however, it is beneficial that within your possibilities, there is certain homogeneity. This can be translated into continuing at the same school as they did before the separation, having the same friends from school or their neighborhood (making it easy for them to see each other), having the same routine in both households (schedules and habits), and same disciplinary style from both parents (boundaries and rules).
  • Do not involve the children in disagreements or conflicts:
    There will be times in which you will find yourselves arguing or disagreeing in front of your children. When this occurs it is important that you indentify the red flags that this is starting to happen, and then do one of two things: put a stop to it and leave it for another moment where your children aren’t present, or take the argument to another place away from them and where they can’t hear you.
  • Don’t make the children your mediator:
    Another way of not involving your children is to not assign them the role of messengers. If they find themselves trapped in this role, they could start to feel pressured, helpless and frustrated, and this could damage their mental wellbeing.
  • Don’t let them take on the role of caretakers:
    It is not uncommon that a child facing their parents’ divorce sees their mother or father affected and wants to act as a caretaker to comfort them. This gesture can be taken as a sweet and loving act, but accepting this care mustn’t be misinterpreted as being healthy. A child needs to be taken care of by their parents, and not the other way around, which is why it’s important not to mix these roles, otherwise it can leave the child feeling unprotected and taking on a caretaker role that doesn’t correspond to them.
  • Attend to their needs:
    A divorce isn’t easy for any of the people involved, and it can become so easy for us to focus on our needs and struggles during the process, sometimes neglecting our children’s needs. You must remember that they are also struggling and they need taking care of more than ever.
  • Take care of yourself:
    This is as much of a self-care act as it is an act of taking care of another person. We can’t take care of other people if we don’t attend to our own wellbeing first. As the saying goes “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. As mothers and fathers, it is important for you to take care of yourselves in order to be strong, to be present and be the best parents for your children.

A divorce isn’t an easy process, for neither parents nor children, but there are ways to make it more manageable and healthy, and if you are reading this article you have already made a step in the right direction to protect your children and give them the care that they deserve.

Alexia Kelsey Roncero Penistone
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alexia Kelsey Roncero Penistone
General Health Psychologist
Adults, adolescents, couples and families
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé