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Navigating Separation and Divorce: Helping Children Cope

When navigating the uncharted waters of separation or divorce, many parents feel like they are in a tiny boat floating in a sea of uncertainty. Your ultimate goal is to get your children to shore safely, without capsizing the boat or getting too far off track. Here are some suggestions to steady the course.

Remember that you are not alone. There are more than 800,000 separations and divorces annually in the United States, affecting more than 1 million children.

Here are some well-established guidelines that can support you on your journey:

Give your child basic information and reassurance.

Children often think they are responsible for their parents’ arguing, separation, or divorce. I once worked with a child who thought her parents were getting divorced because she asked for school supplies and they couldn’t afford them. She heard them arguing about money and made sense of it in her own way. Children may also think they can magically bring parents back together again. Your children don’t need to know the details of your marriage, but they do need to know that the decision to separate or get divorced was between you and your partner and has nothing to do with their thoughts, feelings, or behavior. They need to hear that you will love them forever as will their other parent.

Be patient.

Making the decision to separate or divorce – even if it’s for the best – brings up plenty of confusing feelings. Parents and children often ride the waves of sadness, loss, anger, guilt, and apathy. All of these feelings and emotions are normal. What your children need most is for you to listen and accept whatever they are feeling. It’s really not about cheering them up; it’s about sticking with them as they process the tough stuff. Adjusting takes time and patience.

Don’t make your child an ally, a confidant, or a go-between.

Take care of yourself and find a trusted friend, family member, or counselor to help you with your own feelings about the situation. When you successfully adjust to the changes, your children will cope better, too.

Get some helpers on board.

If possible, share your situation with your child’s teacher, pediatrician, or childcare provider. Children need all the support they can get, and they may hesitate to talk to you or your partner for fear of creating more sadness, anger, or guilt. Get your child into counseling if they need an objective listener or would be more comfortable talking with someone who is not intimately involved.

Let your child know how life will change.

Children wonder, “Who will I live with? Where will I go to school? Who will take care of me?” Minimize the impact of changes by keeping routines and schedules as predictable as possible and putting the child’s needs above any disagreement you are having with your ex-partner.

Rest assured that you won’t be drifting at sea forever. In fact, if you navigate the journey well, you and your children will have learned some valuable sailing skills and be ready to explore new territory. 

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About Michele Tryon, CCLS

About Michele  Tryon, CCLS Michele Tryon, CHKD community outreach coordinator and parent educator has worked with children and families for 30 years, providing services in the hospital, home, school and community setting. Michele is a Certified Child Life Specialist, a Certified Positive Discipline™ parent educator, a nationally recognized trainer/consultant for Nurturing Parenting Programs™ and co-author of The Nurturing Program for Parents and Their Children with Special Needs and Health Challenges©.