Mom comforting son

Deciding to end your relationship with your partner in a divorce is always difficult. And helping a child cope with divorce brings additional complications to an already challenging time.

How you explain divorce to your child and help them through will ultimately depend on your child’s age, personality, and maturity.

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How to Explain Divorce to a Child

Helping children cope with divorce begins with the first conversation you and your spouse have with them. This conversation should happen soon after the decision to separate, as children are often aware and can feel more scared or frustrated if not talked to. There’s no single answer for how to explain divorce to a child, but KidsHealth.org provides some guidelines:

  • The discussion should fit their age and temperament.
  • Focus on the message that both of you love them and what’s happening in your relationship is not their fault.
  • Remind your child that even though you and your spouse will live in different places, nothing can separate a parent from their child.
  • Depending on your child’s age and maturity, share just enough information so that they understand why you and your spouse have made this decision, but remember that they do not need to know all of the reasons for the divorce.
  • Be prepared to describe how your child’s routine and life will and will not change.

Managing Your Child’s Reaction to Divorce

Be prepared to answer your child’s questions about what will happen next, like:

  • Where will I live?
  • Where will I go to school?
  • Can I still see my friends?
  • Do you still love me?
  • Can I still do my favorite activities?

How to Help a Child Cope With Divorce

After breaking the news of divorce, you, your spouse, and your child may experience grief over the loss of your family life as you’ve known it. During this time, you can employ a few techniques to help your child cope, as explained by KidsHealth.org:

  • Remind them to always be honest about their thoughts and feelings and promise that you won’t get mad if they are upset.
  • Help them feel that their feelings about the divorce are legitimate and help them put what they’re feeling into words.
  • Offer support by allowing them to choose what will make them feel better.
  • Take care of yourself. This is a period of high stress and emotion for you and your spouse, and it’s important that you continue to manage your own physical and mental health, even while helping a child to cope.

There are two key things you and your spouse can do to help your child manage his or her new reality:

  • Remain civil and united around your child. Bringing your children into your relationship problems and leading them to believe one parent may be “to blame” can have long-term negative effects.
  • Keep as many elements of your children’s lives as consistent as possible. Let them feel secure by keeping their living situation, school, and social life the same. While you may want your children to make certain decisions, like where they will live, don’t push these changes right away.

Over time, you may notice lasting feelings or behaviors in your child that weren’t present before the divorce. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, you may want to seek therapy for your child if they experience:

  • A lasting change in personality
  • Academic and/or social problems
  • Acting out or “moodiness”
  • Manipulative behavior
  • Acting younger than their age
  • Sadness, depression, or guilt
  • Sleep or eating problems
  • Irrational fears, compulsions, or fears about being away from family members

A professional counselor can recommend child therapy techniques for divorce. Before seeking treatment or making other major changes in your child’s life, consult their physician or counselor.

How to Find a Counselor for Your Child

The first step in finding a counselor who’s a good fit is to check in with your child’s pediatrician, who understands both your child and your family history. Your child’s doctor may want to do a complete physical as well to assure that your child doesn’t have sleep, vision, hearing, or learning problems that are causing behavioral issues.

The Child and Family Counseling Center (CFCC) provides evidence-based behavioral health treatments to children/adolescents and their families. We work closely with community pediatricians, medical specialties, schools, and families to provide family-centered behavioral treatments, teaching children and families skills to minimize distress and maximize wellness. To begin therapy services, no referral is needed. Simply call our intake staff at 724-933-3910 or toll-free at 1-877-933-3910 to discuss if scheduling an appointment is appropriate.

Behavioral health counselors at UPMC Family Medicine Health Centers have professional training in different counseling methods to help manage many behavioral health diagnoses. To find a counselor, please call 412-647-8762 or 800-533-8762.

UPMC Western Behavioral Health Child Services is a continuum of behavioral health programs designed to offer prevention, early intervention and incremental intensity of treatment through multiple levels of care. Services are provided on-site in UPMC facilities, in the home, community, and schools. All sites are currently located within Allegheny County. Most services are available through telehealth. If you need resources, support, or would like to find services for your child please call 412-235-5444.

Sources

KidsHealth.org, Helping Your Child Through a Divorce. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/help-child-divorce.html

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Children and Divorce. https://www.aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Children_and_Divorce.aspx

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh ranks consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is a longtime national leader for women and their newborns. We aim to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond.