Children and Divorce: Helping your children through your divorce

John Gray offers helpful advice to readers on how to help children best cope with a divorce. From reassurance to open and honest conversations with your children, read what you can do to ease the process

By John Gray, Ph.D.
Updated: February 10, 2015
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One of the most serious challenges divorced parents face is maintaining the emotional wellbeing of their children after a divorce.

We all want to give our children a better world than the one we came into. No matter who we are, however, the cause and effect of our lives on theirs has unforeseen repercussions. Families that experience traumatic incidents -- such as death, divorce, or failed marriages -- have children who are more susceptible to mirroring the mistakes of their parents.

The break-up of your marriage was very hard on you and your ex, so you can only imagine what trauma your child feels about it. While your children may not have been privy to all the ups and downs that went on between Mom and Dad, they did witness some of the anger and tears.

Children, particularly the younger ones, tend to feel responsible for things that go wrong. Why? Because, in their mind's eye, their world revolves around them. Then, like ripples in a pond, their world includes those most important to them: their mother, their father, their siblings, their pets, their friends, their teachers, then others who cross their paths.

That is why you must be certain to leave them with these four messages:

  1. They were not the reason for the break-up, and both parents still love them.
  2. Be honest with your children about the fact that the relationship has ended.
  3. Both parents have the right to find happiness in other relationships.
  4. They don't have to make the same relationship mistakes their parents made.

Remember that your children are very susceptible to your anger, pain, hurt, regret, and fears. If you need a confidante, don't make it your child. Instead, go to an adult friend or counselor who has the maturity to understand your anguish and to help you through it.

I've elaborated on these messages below:

Message #1: Make sure your children get the message that they were in no way responsible for the break-up of your marriage.
When divorce breaks up a household, children look inward as to the cause: Are they divorcing because I was a bad boy last night? Did Daddy leave because I was mean to him? If your children get no answers from you, they may naturally blame themselves first. That is why it so very important that you give them the message that, although Mommy and Daddy no longer live together, both of them love their children, and both will always be there for them.

Message #2: Be honest with your children about the fact that the relationship has ended.
Don't give your children the false hope that a reconciliation will eventually happen. Doing so only leaves the children resentful of you and your ex when one does not take place, and keeps them from accepting future partners for their parents, even if those people can make their parents happy. If sometime in the future it does happen, you can discuss it with your children at that point in time.

Message #3: Let your children know that both parents have the right to find happiness in other relationships.
Children have a natural tendency to resent those that may compete with them for the love and attention of their parents. Even adult children may have an irrational fear that another will usurp their role in their parents' lives. The message both parents should give is that no one can take the place they hold for their children in their hearts, but that everyone has a right seek the love of a companion, and to be around others that make them happy. Remember that your children do want you to be happy -- they just don't want to lose you in the process.

Message # 4: Your children need to know that they do not have to make the same relationship mistakes their parents made.
We all hope that our children learn from our mistakes. The best way you can help them with this lesson is be honest with yourself as to the relationship mistakes you may have made, and the fears you may still have. They may suffer from the same fears, or have fears of their own, and you may not be the right person to help them over these emotional issues. Encourage them to talk to a licensed counselor or get recommendations or resources provided at their school. Be respectful of your ex in front of your children. This encourages them to consider both sides of the situation. Also, compliment them, and help them address any self-esteem issues they may have by encouraging them to join team sports, develop a passion such as art or drama, or to journal their thoughts. In other words, be the support system they need. There will be no one else in their lives like you, so respect the place you hold in these, the most important people in your lives.

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By John Gray, Ph.D.| May 27, 2008

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