"When the gusty winds blow and shake our lives, if we know that there are people who care about us, we may bend with the wind—but we won’t break."

Divorce and Separation

Divorce is sad and painful. During a separation or divorce, children often feel as if their family is “broken.” They might even worry that "Since my parents stopped loving each other, they might stop loving me." Divorce changes families in many ways. But it’s still possible for children to feel secure, safe, and loved, even when their parents don’t live together.

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“Who will take care of me?”

Since young children are naturally ego-centric (which comes from our human need to survive), they want to know, "Who will take care of me?" When children see their parents upset and overwhelmed by divorce, they often feel it's up to them to be the caregivers in the family. What a heavy burden that can be! It's reassuring for children to hear that grownups will continue to take care of them and will continue to take care of themselves, as well.

“It’s all my fault…”

One of the most common reactions to parents separating and divorcing is that children believe it's their fault. In fact, they often wonder if divorce might be a kind of punishment for times when they were "bad." They need to hear very clearly from adults that all children misbehave once in a while, and that divorce doesn't happen because of children's misbehaving. Divorce is a problem among adults.

Sometimes children feel they're to blame for the divorce because they’ve had fantasies about getting rid of one of their parents. How scary it can be for them to discover that their wish has come true! We need to let children know that wishes don't make things come true -- not good things or bad things.

Some children in a divorced family think that it’s up to them to get their parents back together again. It's important to remind them that they didn't make the divorce happen and that they can’t bring their parents back together either -- not by wishing, not by being "a perfect child," not even by being a "perfectly unruly child." It's only the parents who can make a decision about such an adult thing as a divorce.

Children’s Right to Feel

Divorce is about loss -- loss of the family as the child has known it, sometimes even the loss of a familiar home. Often deep sadness and anger accompany such a loss. One thing we can always give our children is the right to feel -- the right to feel sadness, anger, and pain. We can also do our best in giving them the security of knowing that they still have a family and adults in their life who will care for them and love them. …

Parents’ Needs and Feelings

When there's a separation or divorce, parents can be hurt and angry, too. Many parents talk about feeling overwhelmed by the new responsibilities of being a single parent, guilty about what the divorce will do to their children, and most of all, feeling like they have been a terrible failure. But just because a marriage has failed doesn't mean that a husband and wife are failures. Divorced people can still be loving and lovable, in many ways.

Take Care of Yourself

It's very hard to have energy for the everyday needs of your child when you yourself are feeling hurt, upset and unloved. One of the first ways to help your child is to offer some help to yourself. Try not to be too judgmental or demanding of yourself. Some people try to go through the hard times of divorce with a constant "stiff upper lip." Pretending that pain, anger, and sadness aren't there doesn't fool anyone. If you're having a hard day, you can let your children know it and assure them that they're not the cause. Feeling the pain and finding healthy ways to deal with our feelings are important parts of healing for adults as well as for children.

You know your child. If you sense that you or your child needs extra help, look for an appropriate counselor or support group. Some people think that needing professional help is a sign of weakness. Not so! It's usually strong people and emotionally healthy people who are able to seek and accept help when they need it. What’s more, everybody needs help sometimes. Anything that encourages you to remember that you are a lovable and loving person is worth your time and energy.

Divorce changes families in many ways. But a mother and father who don't live together can still cherish their children and help them feel secure, safe, and loved.

  • Young children don't need details about why parents are getting divorced. It's enough to say to them, "We are very, very sorry. We talked about it and worked at it, but we cannot live together anymore." Your child may not be able to "hear" what you're saying, particularly at stressful times, so you may have to say things again and again.
  • It's helpful for children if both parents can be there with them (if possible) when they're told about the divorce for the first time. They need to see that both parents care about them and that both will continue to be their parents.
  • If the other parent isn't at all involved, you may be able to offer some comfort by letting your child know that some parents have such a difficult time with their feelings that they aren't able to show their love.
  • It can be very helpful to talk with your children about specific changes, like: where they will sleep or go to school, where each parent will live, when the children will be with each parent. Children who are left to wonder about those very basic things are likely to make up their own fantasy answers, which may be a lot scarier than the truth. Even when those details are uncertain, children can find comfort in knowing you're going to work them out.
  • Talk about the things that will stay the same, especially your love. Children want to know that some things will not change. They need to know there will still be rules. Rules help them feel secure and loved.
  • Children who feel powerful enough to think they have caused the divorce are especially in need of firm rules. Even though they may fight the rules, they really do feel more secure when they know that adults are in charge
  • Continue to do things together that you and your child enjoy -- even small things, like reading a book together, taking a walk, or going to a favorite sports event. It's reassuring for you and your child to know there will still be things to enjoy, even in hard times.
  • Encourage your child to use words like "I'm scared” or “I’m mad" or "I'm sad." That's so much better than lashing out at other people or damaging things. One of the most important uses of language is expressing feelings.
  • Suggest physical activity, like pounding play clay, running in the yard, digging in a pile of dirt, or playing at a playground, all of which can help your child drain off some of the tension of strong feelings. You could also encourage drawing pictures, talking to and for a puppet, or making up stories.
  • Read children's books about divorce. Hearing about other children who are dealing with divorce and talking about pictures in a book can often encourage children to bring up their own feelings and concerns and know they are not alone.
  • No matter how different the situation, it's best not to say negative things about the other parent. Children feel much more secure when they can have positive relationships with both parents.
  • Children sometimes feel caught in the middle between parents. They worry they're betraying one parent when they like being with the other one, so they may not want to leave one parent to visit with the other. Just knowing you understand that's hard for them can help those times be more manageable. “Children can love their moms and their dads even when they’re divorced” can be so helpful to hear!

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