Child crying because of divorced parents.

How to Help Children
Through Divorce or a Breakup

By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

Below are suggestions before and during the telling of children about divorce, how to tell them, some tips of how to help them after the divorce has happened and things that hurt your children.

Do's

  • Parents need to work very hard at putting aside anger toward one another in order to sit down and come to some agreement about how they will tell children what is going on. Your marriage may end, but your responsibilities as parents do not end. Your anger, rage, sadness, fear, are all normal. However, both of you need to work at temporarily putting aside those intense feelings as you both work to help your children through this difficult time. Make a commitment to shield your children from parental conflict. Even if the other parent does not keep their commitment, continue your own commitment. Children need you to do that!
  • Kids need both parents to be parents and to be adults, not acting like 10-year old children.
  • Tell children together when decision has been made.
  • Tell your children about your impending divorce or separation once decision has been made. Try to give at least a week or two notice of parent moving out. It is best to tell children with both parents together, which gives children reassurance that parents will parent together even if don't live together.
  • Tell all the children at once. If there is a wide range in children's ages, it may be helpful later to talk to each one separately after the initial announcement to give more or less information according to age.
  • Make a conscious decision to put aside your conflict for now to help the children.
  • While it may be difficult to be calm and rational at this stage of the crisis, parents should work very hard to explain clearly, directly to children without fighting or blaming each other.
  • Communicate clearly to the children that is not their fault.
  • Assure children that is not their fault--it is between the parents. It helps to let them know that they (the children) are one of the best gifts of the marriage that both parents treasure.
  • Explain what divorce means. Children need to be told clearly what is happening and what divorce means. Don't assume they know what it means just because they know the word or a friend's parents are divorced. Avoid burdening children (even older children) with info about sexual relationships and infidelities.
  • In addition to clearly assuring them that is not their fault, let them know they cannot do anything to fix it.
  • Communicate your understanding that this is difficult for them.
  • Parents should also communicate understanding that this may lead to feelings of hurt and anger in the child and apologize for this difficult experience.
  • Give children basic info about what will stay the same and what will change.
  • Tell them where they will live right now, what school going to, etc. If it will remain the same, let them know that also. Let them know what changes are expected at this point (example, a stay-at-home Mom may need to go to work, etc.).
  • Be clear about visitation with the parent who is leaving the home.
  • Once the leaving parent has a new residence, children should be taken to see it, where they will sleep when they visit, etc.
  • Let them know when and how they can contact the other parent. Set up regular times for contact agreed upon in advance for a set period of time.

  • Example of How to Tell Children
    • "Mommy and Daddy have had some trouble getting along with each other and although we've tried to make it better, we have not been successful at fixing it. We are both unhappy and can't seem to make it better. It has nothing to do with any of you. It's between Mommy and Daddy. You have not done anything to make it happen and while it may be a hard time for all of us, you cannot do anything to fix it either."
    • "We are going to get a divorce. That means we will not be married anymore and we are going to be living in different houses. We will both always be your Mom and Dad and that won't change."
    • Parent who is leaving: "I am going to move to a new place on Saturday morning. You are going to live here with (Mommy/Daddy) and keep going to the same school and be with all your friends. When I get all my stuff moved in, you can come and see my new house because sometimes you will be able to stay with me overnight. You will have a place to sleep at my house too because I will always be your Mommy/Daddy."
    • "We have arranged right now for you to live here, but to visit (Mommy/Daddy) every _____________ . You can also stay at my house overnight on ______________ . You can talk with me on the phone on ____________ and ______________nights if you want."
    • "We will always love you and will always take care of you."

  • Provide continued structure and stability in every way possible. Keep their lives as normal as you can. Make sure they have their own 'space' in both parents' homes.
  • As you progress through the divorce come up with a co-parenting plan that provides consistency for children with both parents. If their usual bedtime has been 10:00 p.m., keep that time at both homes. Both parents are responsible for providing discipline.
  • Children need continuity, structure, routine, consistent discipline, scheduled and regular contact with both parents, familiarity, predictability as possible. They need clear explanation of what is going to happen and when. They need to see mutual respect between parents.
  • Insure physical safety of yourself and your children.
  • When abuse has occurred, steps must be taken to protect children from further danger.
  • Don't try to make up for your guilt by spoiling or buying them toys and gifts. They want your time, your attention and your emotional presence.
  • Integrating a step-parent needs to respect children's love for their parents, no matter what YOU may think of your ex. It is important to tell children this new person does not replace their mother or father, but is like an extra person who also loves them and wants them to be happy and cared for.

Don'ts

  • Worst things you or your spouse can do:
    • Open chronic conflict in front of children.
    • Speak in a negative way about the other parent to your children, or when children can overhear you.
    • Prevent them from contact with the other parent (whether openly or by instilling feelings of disloyalty if they do, getting upset before/during/after they visit or speak with other parent, etc.)
    • Abandon your children physically or emotionally.
    • Use your children as a 'spy' or news reporter about the other parent.

  • The most damaging thing for children is chronic open conflict, blaming, and bitterness between parents whether that occurs verbally or through vengeful litigation. This is the most consistent factor in children suffering long-term harm from divorce.
  • One of the most common mistakes is for one parent to try to convince the child that s/he is the 'good' or 'fun' parent by letting them get away with things, buying them presents, letting them stay up as late as they want, allowing them to do things you did not allow before, etc. This is confusing and harmful to the child. One of the most important roles for children to survive divorce with the least amount of injury is to have loving and consistent parents in both households.
  • Do not make promises you can't or won't keep. Do not promise to take a child to an event on Saturday morning and then forget it or change your mind. This goes both for the custodial and non-custodial parent.
  • A parent 'slipping out' while children are in school, or simply finding a way to avoid the difficulty of being honest and direct with the children, does more harm. Be honest and clear up front.