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Help Children Cope with Parental Separation & Divorce

Divorces have more than tripled in Canada since 1970. Separation and divorce is difficult and painful for all members of the family. Joint custody arrangements have become standard so children remain connected to both parents, but success requires that both parents are child-focused, committed to parenting, cooperating, respecting each other as parents, and remaining emotionally stable.

When parents separate, children usually react with feelings of anger, fear and guilt. Preschoolers and elementary school children commonly blame themselves for their parents’ break up and also believe they have the responsibility to repair their parents’ relationship. A significant number of children exhibit psychological problems such as depression as long as five years after a break up.

Here are some signs that may indicate a child is not coping:

  • changes in personality (quiet child becomes hyperactive or an outgoing child withdraws, develops intense fears)
  • negative statements regarding self (“Maybe I should just kill myself, so you and Dad won’t have to fight over me”)
  • changes in sleeping habits (sometimes nightmares) and/or eating habits (may have significant weight loss or gain)
  • changes in academic performance
  • conduct problems (lying, stealing, destructive)
  • explosive behaviour (rages, screaming, tantrums)
  • health complaints and health changes (frequent headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea or constipation, skin reactions)

However, children have proven to be quite resilient if given the proper support. Here are some general guidelines in helping your children cope with separation and divorce.

  • Be honest. Tell your children why the separation is happening. Make sure you use words they can understand.
  • Accept feelings. Understand your children’s sadness and feelings of missing the other parent. Allow them to express their feelings without guilt or shame.
  • Let Them Know You Love Them. This is very important. Reassure your children that both of you love them even though you, as parents, no longer love each other and that you both will remain in their lives permanently.
  • Minimize change. Your children will feel more in control if you focus on things that will stay the same. For example, they will still play with their friends, go to the park, have their toys, etc.
  • Clarify responsibility. Assure your children that nothing they said, thought, or did caused the marriage break up.
  • Explain what will happen. Your children do not need a lot of court and legal information, but they do need to know schedules, and that they will have a bed, toys and clothes at each house.
  • Be reliable. If you say you will get them at a certain time and day, do! Children are scared and worried when a parent is late.
  • Communicate directly with your Ex. Never put your children in the middle of your relationship with your ex. Never make the children responsible for your emotional support.

Separation and divorce can be a significant traumatic life event for children, but parents, working together, can help their children to cope with the loss of their traditional family structure.