It’s common for a couple with children to go through divorce. How you prepare for it and talk with your kids about it can make all the difference.

Father carrying child on his shoulders as divorced wife walks with them at a distanceShare on Pinterest
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If you have children and are going through a divorce or are considering one, it’s essential to keep the mental health of your children in mind.

The latest 2020 data indicates that the divorce rate hovers around 50% in the United States.

Researchers analyzed children’s perceptions of divorce in a 2019 study of 122 Israeli children. They found that the children’s quality of life was improved with “active coping.” When children blamed themselves for the divorce or the parents were in high conflict during the divorce, they reported a lower quality of life.

If you’re unhappy in your marriage or facing a toxic or abusive environment, these statistics needn’t discourage you.

Sometimes the wisest thing to do for your peace of mind and the health of your children is to detach from a harmful marriage.

Foresight can be helpful, however, so here are some questions to consider before moving forward.

Q: Is there a ‘better age’ for children to withstand their parents’ divorce?

A: Dealing with divorce as a child is challenging, regardless of your kid’s age.

The research is inconsistent as to whether there’s a “better” age for children at the time of divorce.

For example, young children haven’t developed the cognitive function to understand divorce, but they’ve developed attachments to caregivers. Older children may ask more questions, blame themselves, and exhibit adjustment difficulties after divorce.

Q: Will divorce cause trauma every time in kids?

A: Divorce brings up many emotions in children, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it always causes trauma. Divorce affects every child differently.

Research from 2018 suggests that without intervention to help manage high-conflict situations, children may be susceptible to school problems, behavioral challenges, or have difficulty with substance use.

For the kids who might be traumatized, it may be helpful to know data from the National Center for PTSD shows that not every child who experiences trauma develops PTSD:

  • 14%–43% of kids experience at least one trauma in childhood.
  • Of those, 3%–15% of girls and 1%–6% of boys develop PTSD.

If addressed early on and holistically, trauma and PTSD in kids is readily treatable.

Q: Is there a mentally healthy way to explain divorce to a child?

A: You can talk about divorce with your children in a healthy way.

Some tips for talking with kids about divorce:

  • Allow them space to feel and express their feelings.
  • Actively listen and practice patience.
  • Avoid speaking negatively about your ex in front of your kids.
  • Avoid putting your child in the middle of your arguments.
  • When possible, try to maintain healthy communication while co-parenting.

Q: How do kids typically react to divorce?

A: This depends on the children’s ages and stages of development.

Initially, children may react by:

  • having a negative view of relationships
  • exhibiting emotional problems
  • experiencing difficulty with adjustment

Most often, kids adjust between 2–3 years after the divorce, according to older 2005 research.

Q: Will my kids pick sides or prefer one parent?

A: Yes, it’s possible that your child will choose sides and “pick” you or your ex. Sometimes this is because of manipulation on a parent’s part. If it’s the other parent, you have no control over this.

What you can influence is how you talk with them about their other parent. Forcing a child to pick sides can lead to long-term psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and substance use issues.

All you can do is support your kid and take the high road.

Q: Who gets the kids in a divorce?

A: Most of the time, courts will try to award joint custody to both parents. Some situations that may prompt sole custody by one parent include:

  • abuse
  • domestic violence
  • neglect

Research from 2020 shows more children live with mothers than fathers. The research didn’t take into account same-sex couples and transgender parents.

Family courts look to abide by what’s in “the best interest of the child.” They consider the child’s preference and make provisions for necessities, education, and environment.

Q: Will it really do any harm if I talk negatively about my ex within earshot?

A: Yes, children involved in high conflict divorces generally have a more difficult time adjusting. The more your child hears about you talking negatively about your ex, the more psychological harm it can cause.

Q: I feel guilty about the divorce. Does it really do harm if I try to ‘make it up’ to my child?

A: It’s understandable that you’d like to ease your guilt over the divorce by withholding discipline, relaxing boundaries, or trying to buy your kids’ affection. But this likely won’t help them become the healthy, autonomous adults you probably want them to be.

It’s wise to settle on your parenting style and stick to it. A healthy way to deal with any guilt and set your kid up for success is to model self-care for yourself and focus on the present moment with them.

Q: Do I have enough logistical and emotional support?

A: Going through a divorce can bring up strong emotional experiences for you. While you manage your mental health, consider enlisting practical assistance in your everyday life.

You might consider seeking emotional supportand help managing your kid’s schedule. Do you have friends, extended family, or other social supports who can listen and lend a hand?

A: Starting therapy during or shortly after the divorce process may be a helpful tool for managing the life change and giving you the proper skills to help you parent your child through divorce, as well.

You may consider whether you want to see your therapist in person or online. Try some of these helpful tools to find a therapist.

Q: Should I take my kids to therapy?

A: Therapy can be important, whether or not you notice your child or teen having difficulty managing their emotions or adjusting after a divorce.

Starting therapy can empower them in an otherwise reactive situation and help them learn skills for expressing their feelings in a healthy way.

Q: Does my child have an outlet for their emotions around our divorce?

A: Helping children find a healthy outlet for their emotions surrounding divorce is crucial.

Some healthy outlets that may help kids cope:

  • meeting with a mental health professional virtually
  • speaking with a supportive adult, including extended family or mentors
  • making art, such as painting, drawing, or coloring
  • working up a sweat or listening to music

Q: What type of parenting plan will be effective for my ex and me?

A: Co-parenting and parallel parenting are commonly used parenting plans.

Co-parenting is a style of parenting where both parents remain involved in the children’s activities and upbringing.

Parallel parenting is typically used when hostility or a toxic parent is involved. Parallel parenting allows each parent to detach from their ex, and spend time with and rear the children individually to reduce harmful effects on the kids. Think: “You do it your way, I’ll do it my way.”

There are many resources available that can help children and parents cope.

For children ages 2 to 8, this resource from “Sesame Street” has videos, printables, and loads of information about how kids can healthily cope with divorce.

For children of divorce of all ages, check out this blog dedicated to children of divorce.

Some helpful books for support during divorce:

If you’re experiencing or have experienced domestic violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline can provide support and resources. Call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.

Remember, you and your kids can make it through life changes like a divorce with planning, therapy, self-care, and support.