Children And Divorce: Common Reactions And What To Say And Do

All children, no matter what their age or developmental stage will experience some effects of the divorce. Younger children may not be able to verbally express themselves but they are still impacted by these changes. Whereas, older children may have more understanding they may feel torn about the breakup of the family. This can be a very confusing time for children and adolescents. Below is some helpful information to help you and your child through this time in your lives.

Talking to Young Children (ages 4 to 8) – Common Reactions of Young Children

• Tantrums, crying or irritability

• Anger or aggression

• Negative behaviors or acting out

• Expressing fears of being alone, unloved, abandoned

• Clinging, need for parental attention

• Regressive behaviors (thumb sucking, “baby” talk, etc.)

• Blaming themselves for the divorce, parent leaving

• Withdrawal, emotional distance

• Fantasies about parents staying together, idealizing the other parent

• Disturbances in sleep

• Difficulty in school: difficulties with concentration, focus, staying on task.

What to Say and Do:

• Give verbal reassurance to young children.

• Give physical comfort.

• Give developmentally appropriate information about the divorce.

• Maintain consistent routines that are familiar to them.

• Discuss upcoming changes or schedules before they occur. Use a calendar to show in concrete ways what will happen.

• Give young children tangible items to provide them security.

• Read books or watch shows that address divorce.

Talking to Adolescents (ages 9 to 12) – Common Reactions of Adolescents

• Feelings of being hurt, lied to or betrayed.

• Anger or aggression.

• Feeling conflicted about loyalty to each parent, feeling “stuck in the middle.”

• Confusion about who they are and where they fit in

• Sense of shame about family situation.

• Negative behaviors, such as withdrawal, acting out, etc.

• Manipulative behavior, playing “games” with parents.

• Disturbances of sleep.

• Difficulties in school.

What to Say and Do

• Help children express and cope with grief, anger and other feelings of concern.

• Avoid placing the child in the middle of conflicts.

• Speak about positive aspects of the other parent.

• Avoid open criticism and support your child in maintaining a positive relationship with the other parent.

• Spend one-on-one time with your children to strengthen your relationship.

• Keep your child’s activities normal.

Talking to Teens (ages 13 to 18) – Common Reactions of Teens

• Feelings of anger and powerlessness about the divorce.

• May “grow up” more quickly, distance themselves emotionally from parents.

• Conflicted about loyalty to each parent.

• Sense of a loss of “home” or family security.

• Emotional withdrawal, depression, isolation.

• Self-destructive behaviors (drugs, alcohol, etc.).

• Increased sense of responsibility for their younger siblings.

• Questioning the permanency of relationships in general.

• Discomfort with parents’ new romantic relationships.

What to Say and Do

• Be honest with teens to avoid feelings of distrust.

• Reassure them of your love and ease any of their fears.

• Be consistent in your parenting and family rules.

• Avoid criticism of the other parent.

• Provide a consistent and stable routine of living.

• Support your teen’s positive relationships with friends.

• Identify other supportive adults that they can talk to.

Other tips in helping your child through a difficult time:

• Reassure them that it is not their fault.

• Remain consistency with discipline.

• Keep your promises.

• Be available to talk with your child when they are ready.

• Let your child be a kid (not taking on adult responsibilities).

• Take care of yourself. You are the backbone of the family.

• Seek professional help if you notice that your child’s symptoms are not improving.

Heidi Culbertson is the Director of Client Development at Harris Family Law. Harris Family Law specializes in Denver divorce, Colorado family law and Colorado child custody laws.

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