How to Talk About Divorce to Help Kids Cope

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I once worked with a little boy who was the master of hiding his feelings. He was always the life of the party, making people laugh and breaking uncomfortable silences with silly shenanigans. He knew how to do distraction.

School, however, was a different story. He rarely paid attention in class, he had difficulty keeping up with his classmates, and he seemed to withdraw from his friends. Although he sat with the same kids at lunch every day, he rarely talked to them. During recess, he sat in the shade with a book.

His parents were in the middle of a divorce. It wasn't a particularly contentious divorce. In fact, mom and dad continued to attend all school functions and games together. They appeared to get along and worked hard to stay on the same page for the benefit of the kids. The only problem was that they never actually talked about the divorce.

They were so busy being positive that they forgot to make time to talk about how hard divorce can be for the little ones.

Some kids regress when their parents split up. Some kids have difficulty staying on task in the classroom or act out in school or at home (or both). Some, like this little boy, spend a lot of time trying to “fix” everything with the hope that the divorce might come to a crashing halt. All kids are individuals and all kids process their feelings in different ways. But all kids need to work through their feelings when coping with divorce. No matter how hard they might try, kids can't simply avoid those feelings that cause a world of hurt.

Follow these steps to help your little one talk through feelings about divorce.

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Talk about change:

People plan to stay together forever when they say “I do” but the truth is that people also change. Sometimes those changes are positive and relationships strengthen, but sometimes people grow apart or struggle to resolve differences. That can be a difficult concept for little kids to understand.

Talk to your children about the way things change. Talk about all the changes different families face: New babies, moving, loss, new jobs, new schools, and divorce all cause big changes for families. Talk openly about these things that so that your child understands that it is okay to talk about tough topics in your house.

{ MORE: Take the Extra Minutes: How to Build Patience into Your Day }

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Talk about feelings:

People tend to wear different masks when they don't want to confront their feelings. Silly might make a good mask for sadness. Anger sometimes hides anxiety. Tired makes a good cover up for lonely.

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Talk about your feelings about the divorce and how you sometimes mask those feelings. As much as we want to protect our kids from our problems, masking everything sends a confusing message. When we take off our masks and talk about our own emotions, kids learn that all feelings are okay. 

{ MORE: 15 Ways to Take Care of Yourself This Valentine's Day }

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Talk about the pros and cons:

Kids need to be able to talk about the negative emotions surrounding so that they don't stuff those feelings until they burst. Those are the cons of divorce – the things that make kids feel angry, sad, confused or anxious.

But sometimes change can also have pros. Mom and dad won't fight so much anymore, for example. Or perhaps your child will enjoy 1:1 time with each parent more frequently. Kids tend to have a hard time finding the positives that can come with change in the beginning, and that's okay. Helping them reframe their thoughts and look for one good thing each day can help kids work through their grief.

{ MORE: What to Include in Parenting Plans }

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Draw the circles of support with your child:

Kids feel disconnected and overwhelmed when their parents split up. Sometimes they might feel very alone. The truth is that they have support, even if they can't quite see it through the cloud of grief that hovers over them. You can help them push the cloud aside by talking about their circles of support.

Draw one circle with your child's name in the middle. Around that, draw a circle with mom and dad and talk about the fact that mom and dad are still there even though they live in different places. Keep circling and adding supportive people (friends, relatives, teachers, etc.) the chart. As the circles grow, your child will see that helpers are everywhere.

It takes time and patience for kids to work through their feelings about divorce. Divorce is a loss in the mind of a child – a loss of the family unit. Opening the lines of communication and making time to simply be present and available can make a big difference to kids as they adjust to a new family dynamic. 

{ MORE: Why I Won’t Be Friends with My Ex-Husband’s Girlfriend }

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How to Talk About Divorce to Help Kids Cope

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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