When the decision to divorce is made, spouses who are parents of minor children can help them through the process to the other side by understanding what the kids are going through and by considering the advice of professionals who counsel parents and children in divorce. Whether the family atmosphere has been positive and warm despite cracks developing in the spousal relationship or the parental conflict has been clear to the children, the divorce news will rarely be easy to share.
Dr. Rachelle Theise, a psychologist and professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Child Study Center, has some tips for communicating the divorce decision to kids, as provided by the Huffington Post:
- Think through and even write down the words you will use to tell the children, calmly and together with your spouse.
- Stay calm and reassuring, emphasizing that their loving relationships with both parents will continue.
- Approach will vary depending on a child's age, maturity and personality.
- Kids under three will not understand divorce, but those in preschool can understand at a basic level. Keep it simple and emphasize what will continue to be the same in their routines.
- Children in elementary school may want to understand why the change will happen, but may or may not actually verbalize this. Emphasize that life will be all right and be sure they know they should talk about it.
- It may be toughest to communicate the news to adolescents who will understand much more than younger siblings. You can be more open about why the split is happening, depending on the child and the situation, but do not criticize the other parent in the process.
You should continue to initiate open communication with your children about how they are doing during the divorce. Consultation with a mental health professional may be especially helpful during the stressful transition while the divorce is being negotiated or litigated in court, the household is splitting into two homes, and continuing through the final court order.
Dr. Theise says that each child is unique in his or her reactions and that teenagers may deal more extensively with anger or depression. She describes that children experience five stages of loss in dovorce:
- Denial and shock
- Grief and depression that can manifest in altered patterns of sleeping, eating and socializing, including withdrawal, and in irritability
- Bargaining, meaning a child may try to control what is happening by altering behavior such as by suddenly improving at school
Everyone begins a new phase of life together (and apart) after the divorce is final. Unless it is not in the child's best interest because of family violence, substance abuse or another circumstance, the parents will likely share parenting time, whether through a negotiated settlement or a judge-designed or approved parenting plan.
Amanda Dutton, a licensed therapist writing on BlogHer.com, recommends that divorced parents implementing a new parenting plan and schedule that shares time with the children focus on the kids' needs and away from historical conflicts. Keep the communication open and establish rules and discipline that are the same at both homes. Try not to badmouth your ex in front of the children and do not put them in the middle of any ongoing discord. Use healthy conflict-resolution methods when you have differences with the other parent.
At the Texas law firm of Harris Cook LLP with offices in Arlington, Mansfield and Flower Mound, we support our clients through divorce with children by helping negotiate positive and comprehensive parenting plans when possible and fighting for the same in court, if necessary.