Every family situation is different, and every child is affected in unique ways, ranging from a mild to a severe degree. While some children may adjust fairly well to a divorce, others will be significantly affected for the short and long term. It’s very hard to predict how each of your children will react, because so many variables influence their responses. But there are several ways you can lessen the negative impact of divorce on your children.
Avoid divorce in the first place. Many of us are surprised to learn that there is no issue or problem in a marriage that can’t be resolved when both spouses are determined to work toward change and seek God’s help. You might assume that a pattern of multiple affairs would surely destroy your marriage and be reasonable grounds for a divorce. While that might be true, it’s important for you to know that couples can and do work through marital infidelity, usually with the strong support of family members and friends, pastors, mentors, and a marriage counselor. Sometimes a period of separation is helpful to provide a break from frequent arguments and help each spouse get a clearer perspective on the problems they are contributing to marital strife. If it’s at all possible on your end, avoid divorce.
Listen to your children. Provide a safe place and undistracted time to talk about what they’re thinking and feeling as they go through this storm. Some kids like to draw as they talk, some like to take a walk or hike, some like to go out to dinner, some like to journal about what’s happening. They need to express their thoughts and emotions and know it’s okay to feel or think those things. Help them come up with ways to manage their internal turmoil. This is like giving them an umbrella or a raincoat in the middle of a rainstorm. The storm is still there, but they can talk about their discomfort and get some relief in the middle of it.
Get along with your ex-spouse. It’s easier said than done, but it’s critical for your children’s sake. You expect your children to get along with others. Now is a perfect opportunity to model how to do that. Revenge and manipulation isn’t helpful—it’s actually quite damaging.
Put stress buffers and crisis prevention measures into place when you decide to divorce. Hostility between parents, loss of social support, multiple losses, and minimum contact with a noncustodial parent are likely to exacerbate any negative reactions to divorce in your children. The more parents can do to treat each other civilly and take steps to build supportive relationships between your children and their friends and extended family members prior to a divorce, the better.
Adjusting to the loss of a marriage in the family is hard enough for kids, so it’s up to you as the parents to absorb other losses as much as is possible, instead of making choices that require them to lose a home, school, friends, and/or beloved pets.
Establish regular one-on-one time with each child, if possible. Children process the divorce differently depending on their personality, sex, age, and relationship with each parent. Look for connection with your child, not popularity or control.
Respond quickly and proactively to any signs of divorce-related problems in your children. Listen to the concerns expressed by your kids’ teachers, pastors, and other trusted people who can provide you with realistic feedback on your children. If changes in academic progress, social relationships, behavior, or physical or psychological health are noticed before or after a divorce, seek help quickly from a school counselor, mental health professional, and those in a position to have a positive influence on your children. The earlier you do this, the better. If problems are denied or not addressed, they are likely to get worse.
Don’t forget that even though divorce is a time of stress, kids still need to have limits and consistency. It’s tempting for you to feel bad for your kids and to ease up on enforcing boundaries. But your children need the predictability of boundaries so they can feel that things will be okay. They may fight the limits—that’s normal—but they need them in order to feel safe and stable.