Patients and Families

Helping Children Cope With Divorce

When parents divorce, children are forced to confront the breakup of their family. They become part of two distinct families, and life changes forever. Children must be allowed to grieve the loss they will feel. Parents can help them through this process by giving them the emotional support they will need to live with divorce. The way parents react to the divorce will directly affect their children's ability to cope. Parents who are constantly angry lose their ability to be positive role models for their kids.

The first priority must be the children's emotional well-being. Children often feel caught in the middle of their parents' disputes; many feel forced to choose between Mom and Dad. Parents can help their kids adjust by keeping their children out of the conflict.

Parents must recognize that divorce is an adult issue. From the first conversations they have with their kids about the divorce, they should stress that the kids are not responsible for the marriage breaking up. They should explain that while love between adults may change, love between parents and children never ends. Kids should be prepared for upcoming changes, but adult decisions should not be imposed on them. Parents also should not confide in their children about their problems. This puts kids in the unfair position of having to choose whose side to be on.

Parents should try to maintain a positive relationship with their former spouse and should not talk negatively about him or her in front of the children. Kids will always be part of both families, and they need the love and support of both. Divorce is as hard on kids as it is on parents. Parents need to be supportive and patient and give the kids unconditional love.

Children whose parents divorce typically experience a wide range of emotions, including sadness, anger, confusion and guilt. A child's developmental level plays an important role in how he or she responds. Preschoolers may feel that their parents no longer love them since they no longer love each other. They may be uncooperative and regress in their behavior. Parents should repeatedly reassure them of their love. Older children, more aware of parents' problems, tend to react out of anger. They may withdraw from the family or rebel. Parents should keep channels of communication open with them, monitor their social activities and maintain “normal” routines. Adhering to a balanced schedule helps preserve a sense of stability in the family.

Devoting time to each child is important, and parents should talk to their kids regularly.  Parents can keep in touch through notes, letters and phone calls. Communicating with kids is critical. Parents need to listen to them, let them know that all feelings are acceptable and respond calmly when they express strong feelings. Use language that reflects how the child feels, such as “You feel sad and empty on the inside.” This will help them release their emotions and build trust between parent and child.

There are many ways to help children live with divorce. Read books together about divorce to start a dialogue. Through positive interactions with kids, parents can help them overcome difficulties and move forward in their lives. They leave their children a lasting legacy of love, and their children learn the value of a nurturing and supportive family.

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC offers Positive Parenting classes and other parenting workshops. For more information, call the Community Education Department at 412-692-7105. Current classes are listed on this Web site.

Last Update
September 11, 2008
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Last Update
September 11, 2008
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