Effects of divorce on children



I cannot hate you as you are the parent of my child. My relationship with you will reflect in our child…

Divorce is a decision that more often than not creates emotional, social and physical disturbances in a child’s life. The way you decide to convey the decision to your child and your attitude towards her/him till about a few months after that will make a huge difference to the state of mind of your child. Children go through a range of emotions such as feeling sad, angry, uncertain, rejected, hurt, abandoned, deceived, hopeful, helpless or being low in self esteem in the long run.

At the same time, many children can be resilient and adapt to the new phase of their life and emerge more matured and independent. There are going to be many situations in their growing up and adult life where they might have to deal with change and loss. Parents divorce could be an early experience where they learn to manage their emotions and progress on the part of human development, stronger and confident while feeling loved throughout.

“Children go through a range of emotions such as feeling sad, angry, uncertain, rejected, hurt, abandoned, deceived, hopeful, helpless or being low in self esteem in the long run…”

Be united giving the news:

As far as possible, keep your couple differences aside and give the news to your child together with a common perspective. Be prepared and practise together in advance as otherwise due to your feelings towards each other you might end up acting out in front of your child. This will help your child understand the situation better and help to save any emerging confusion from the decision. Further, it helps in preserving feelings of trust in the child for the parents rather than taking sides and developing negative feelings for one parent. Do not give in the difficult details to your children. If you have more than one child, tell all the children together.


Keep the information about your divorce simple and age appropriate:

More than anything else, what affects children deeply is their whereabouts after the separation. They want to know their future routine such as where they will stay, which school they will go to, what hobby classes they will attend to, whether they will still see their friends, who will take care of them, and so on.

Toddlers and pre schoolers (2 to 5yrs): They are egocentric in nature. They do not empathise with parents so much. They also do not understand complex feelings neither can they reciprocate towards them. A lot of detailed information can leave them distressed and confused as they would feel uncertain.

Primary school children (6-8yrs): They start feeling complex emotions but cannot really understand them. They are slightly independent and have a social circle. Even with this age group you should keep information restricted to what affects them while honestly answering any questions asked by them in the simplest manner possible. Be prepared with answers before you break the news.


“Continuous casual conversations on your children’s activities and feelings are important to reassure them that both the parents are going to keep loving and caring for them come what may…”


Pre teens (9-12): They start understanding complex emotions and start developing independent social life. They can carry a lot of judgements and prejudices while going through negative emotions. They can also completely withdraw and hide behind a shell. You should be thoroughly prepared to tell them in details how their life would be post divorce. Do not sound defensive or paint a perfect picture. Be reassuring and honest.

Teens (13 to 15): They are a vulnerable a lot as they understand everything. A united front with both parents is paramount to disclose the news to your teens. They can keep their feelings to themselves and can fall easy prey to peer pressure while succumbing to impulsivity and irrational decisions. They could favour a parent while criticising and being vindictive about the other. It is anyway a period of independence and the independence can make them closed inward and outside the family. They will try to spend more time with friends. Honest communication and reassurances will be effective while being firm and keeping their daily life as stable as you can to help bring in stability.

All in all, the key is telling children as much as it matters to them and also as much as they understand. At any age group, honesty and telling them about their life after divorce is the most important thing.


Consistency in routines after divorce:

It is challenging to be a parent during difficult phases of life as your emotional resources are exhausting. But at the same time, these phases are very important for child development. Try to remain as positive as possible. If not taken care of, they might impact their emotional and mental well-being which would affect all other areas of their life. Hence, keeping their routines as close to as it was before the news came in is important. It could be difficult but being firm and consistent would help you build it up. There should be no relaxation on the same. Some of them go through a sense of loss and a feeling of being abandoned. You should help them express and it has to be addressed through reassurances and stability as far as possible. This helps them build up self esteem.


Repeated reassurances after divorce:

Giving the news appropriately is only a step in the process of helping your child cope up with the effects of your divorce on him/her. Continuous casual conversations on your child’s activities and feelings are important to give him/her space to vent out and reassure your child that: 1. both the parents are going to keep loving and caring for him/her come what may; 2. your child’s life will be similar to what it was before; 3. your child is going to get to spend time with both parents individually from time to time; 4. it is not your child’s fault that parents are getting divorced.

Change is one of the most important aspects of a child’s life that you have to address. Some children vent out their anger or any feelings during the first conversation of announcing the news and some withdraw while taking time to come about expressing. Many children feel rejected and insecure. It is important that you help children vent out with the help of spending quality time and asking neutral questions. Encourage them to express and communicate to you. These conversations will help them deal with their feelings. It will also help if you could help them – specially the younger ones – to have names for their feelings. Keep pouring your love. Keep talking and listening patiently.


Co parenting is the best way ahead after divorce:

Avoid blaming each other, or having negative side conversations in the presence of a child is very important after a divorce. While talking to your child in the presence of each other sometimes, it is natural that you come across moments when you want to say things differently or maybe even accuse your spouse over something. You should exercise self control and be prepared to continuously do the same each time. Going forward, do not try to spy on your ex spouse through your child or clear your stand in front of your child when spending time alone.

Also do not use your child to communicate messages to your ex spouse. By being diplomatic and developing an amicable relationship with your ex spouse, you will be able to model problem solving skills to your child. Avoid discussions with friends, relatives or lawyers in the presence of your child as he/she may interpret messages and end up being confused and hurt. Making your child take sides is highly detrimental to his/her emotional self. Do not criticise your ex in case he or she does not show up for a meeting, hear your child out and make other plans if possible.

Once you have taken the decision to get divorced, try and let bygones be bygones as digging up the past is not good for anyone. The well being of both the parents is important for the well being of the child. Hence do not carry vindictive feelings for your ex spouse. This could be difficult in some cases where there was abuse or betrayal. Getting professional help in the form of counselling can be helpful.


Take care of yourself after a divorce:

Look ahead in your life after your divorce. Plan your days as well as your child’s days. Spend time catching up on things you have not done for a long time. Talk to your circle of trusted friends and family. Do not fear being judged as many times things do not work out. Eat healthy and sleep well with a fixed time and place. Exercise to release chemicals that will provide motivation to live a better quality of life.

Think positive while you challenge your negative thoughts disputing them and finding evidence against. Make your interests your priority apart from your child of course. Do not be scared of dating again as your past experiences are limited and do not prove that a relationship with any other man/woman will end up the same way. Get professional help, it will enhance yours and your child’s emotional well being. Under any circumstance do not lean towards your children for emotional support. It happens unconsciously.


Divorce is a decision, do not let your child hope

Ideally you should announce the decision of divorce to your children only when you and your spouse are certain about it and have repeatedly tried to make things work out. At this time, sometimes children do contain hope that one day their parents could get back together. Divorces that take ages to materialise with frequent negotiations and discussions are tough ones on the child. They never let children adapt. They give children unnecessary hope as well. Each time you see this coming, talk to your child and tell him/her that you will always take care of him/her from two separate homes and it is an adult decision which will not change.

There are times when children think that they can help their parents reconcile. Let them know that children cannot do anything when adult decisions are involved and individually both the parents are always going to love them and take care of them. This is pertinent as many children miss the family unit and absence of both the parents around them. Hope in this case is redundant and might foster complex feelings and low self esteem when it is killed after a long time.


Take care of their insecurities after divorce:

Explain to your children that parents can change the way they love and care for each other when they do not agree to each others’ perspectives. This is when they decide to divorce and live in two different homes. At the same time, the relationship between children and parents is not the same. Parents will always love their children come what may. At times, they disagree with each others’ perspectives but they will always stay together. This will help them keep their fears of abandonment in check. Also encourage them to develop socially as this will make them independent, confident and competent.


Vigilance on signs of emotional / behaviour disturbances:

There could complaints or other troubles at school, difficulties to fall asleep, nightmares, bedwetting, withdrawal from friends, loss of interest in activities in which earlier interest was high, difficulty to concentrate in studies, loss of appetite, aggression, self harm or injury, substance abuse, over indulgence with the opposite sex, etc… You should be on a look out for any differences in their attitudes and actions post your divorce. These signs could be the beginning of maladaptive behaviour patterns. You should seek help from a counsellor before it aggravates and forms a condition.


Counselling can help you before, during and after divorce

Do not let the separation be abrupt. Plan and prepare along with your spouse while you are deciding to announce the news to your children. Keep the above factors in mind to smoothen the transition. It would help you and your children to adjust to the new conditions of life. Once you successfully live through this phase, your children will be matured enough to handle stress and develop tolerance towards suffering in life. It would help them grow and become flexible adults, hence it is not all bad after all. Counselling will help you in parenting under these high pressure life phases. Feel free to ask me a question or book an appointment if you are going through a tough life transition and need help in any above mentioned aspects.

Richa Khetawat is a trained Psychologist providing online counselling services in a professionally helping manner to facilitate transitions in life. She has over 10 years of experience helping individuals cope with managing family and relationships issues, stress and anxiety, life transitions, children parenting and adolescent issues.