Going through divorce is hard enough, but adding kids to the mix can make things a lot harder. Here are 8 tips for navigating divorce with kids.
It’s safe to say that divorce is one of the most stressful life events you can go through. Fraught with emotion, these high-stakes legal battles can cause feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and restlessness.
If it’s excruciating to you, what must it feel like for your children?
When it comes to navigating a divorce with kids, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that there’s nothing you can do to keep your divorce from impacting your children.
The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to reassure them, minimize their stress, and offer consistent comfort during the transition. As you navigate your separation, here’s what you should know about how to divorce with kids.
1. Break the News With Care
The first thing you’ll want to do is let your kids know you’re separating.
Be aware, of course, that you’ll only want to do so once you are absolutely sure the decision to have a divorce is final. Your best bet may be to wait until you’ve both signed the divorce agreement.
At this point, talk to your ex to decide when to break the news. Experts recommend having a plan in place about how the conversation should unfold and talking to your kids together.
In some cases, it may be tempting to protect your children by waiting until after the separation to let them know, but it’s often better to start the conversation early. This allows you to have multiple conversations as needed, giving your kids the space they need to decide how they feel and come back to you with questions.
During these conversations, it’s important to reinforce to them that they are loved and that they are not at fault for the separation. Do your best to stay calm and impartial, and be there to support them during the fallout. No matter how you and your spouse feel about each other, present a united front during the conversations.
Don’t forget to also inform your children’s teachers and school counselor. These professionals can help keep an eye on your kids during the transition.
2. Expect Mixed Reactions
Immediately after the initial conversation and in the days and weeks afterward, you should expect to see mixed reactions. It’s safe to say that if you file for a divorce with three kids, you’ll likely get three different reactions out of them.
Irritation and clinginess can be common in younger children, and very young kids might need help understanding what’s going to happen. Some children may express anger or guilt, and others may act out or question their beliefs.
It’s important to let your kids feel what they’re feeling, but make sure you’re encouraging them to share those feelings with you. Try to set aside one-on-one time for them on a regular basis, whether this time involves a discussion of the future or your normal family time as a form of comfort.
3. Contain Your Hostility
Getting divorced with kids can be hard for parents going through a messy or combative separation. Even if you and your spouse are angry or fighting, it’s important to do everything you can to not put your kids in the middle of it.
Don’t talk about the legal ins and outs of your case with your children, even if they are old enough to understand them. It should be obvious that you should never use your kids as a sounding board for your case, even for child support and custody issues. In addition, don’t force your kids to take sides, even in minor disputes, or use your child as a messenger to deliver all your news to your ex.
Make sure to avoid the urge to bad-mouth your ex or anyone involved in the divorce. This can invite feelings of uncertainty and anger in your kids, and it’s not fair to them to spread your negative feelings—especially because it’s your children’s right to have a continued relationship with both of their parents. If you need to vent, call a friend or talk to a therapist.
Again, it should go without saying that you should never withhold visitation or child support out of anger. These legal agreements are binding, and the last thing you want to do is get into legal trouble with your ex-spouse.
4. Remind Them That They Aren’t at Fault
This tip is one we’ve already touched on, but it bears repeating here because you’ll need to repeat it often.
Your kids will need reassurance that they are not at fault for the divorce. It’s unfortunately common for children to pick apart their past behaviors, wonder what they did wrong, and feel guilty about their assumed responsibility for the separation. Make sure to remind them, again and again, that they have done nothing wrong.
This is especially important if you and your ex have been arguing over parenting issues. You’ll need to remind your child that their behavior is not what caused the divorce and that there’s nothing they could have done to make things happen differently.
5. Iron Out the Details
Take some time to sit down with your ex to discuss the details of your divorce as it relates to your kids. There are a few key topics you’ll want to talk about.
Your first topic, if you haven’t already touched on it, should be what your financial situation will look like after the divorce.
Who will pay for what? Will you need to change aspects of your children’s activities or schooling? If there will be any major changes, make sure to sit down with your kids to discuss them.
In addition, don’t forget to figure out your kids’ schedules. You may have already decided this during a custody agreement, but you’ll also want to make sure you’re both aware of the details, especially if your kids will bounce back and forth between your houses often.
Consider setting up a shared online calendar to capture information about pickups and drop-offs, school times, extracurricular activities, any appointments, and each parent’s work schedule. The last thing you want to do is let your kids down by missing an activity or appointment, or—worse—failing to pick them up at the right time.
Don’t assume that parenting will be as straightforward during your separation as it was when you were together. Instead, make sure you’re still on the same page about the parenting tactics you’ll use with your kids. Ongoing disagreements about parenting won’t help anyone, least of all your kids.
Lay out a parenting plan, and be prepared to compromise and negotiate as needed. Make sure to discuss discipline, routines, and what constitutes unacceptable behavior.
6. Stick to Your House Rules
As your children adjust to the news of your separation, it’s important to stick to your house rules. Don’t let poor behavior slide by giving your kids a pass because they’re going through a major change.
Your house rules are a source of stability for your kids, and sticking to them shows that the foundations of your household aren’t completely unrecognizable. The structure and routine can help, even if your kids seem determined to test your boundaries. Bending the rules can add to your kids’ insecurities.
If your children will be moving back and forth between you and your ex’s custody, do what you can to set similar rules in both households. This is a great way to add a little more consistency to their usual routines.
7. Consider Getting Help
The period after a divorce can feel incredibly lonely, but it doesn’t mean you have to be alone. Reach out to friends and family members for help and support, especially as you find your footing during the early days of your divorce.
In addition, consider seeking family therapy, getting professional counseling, or joining a divorce support group. This can help you cope with any lasting pain, guilt, or anger you feel.
Your children may benefit from counseling as well. If they continue showing signs of distress long after the initial conversation, a professional might be able to help them cope with and redirect their emotions.
Use These Tips to Handle a Divorce With Kids
It’s safe to say that divorce can be a stressful and challenging time for kids—but there are plenty of things you can do to minimize that stress. With the tips above, you’ll find it much easier to navigate your divorce with kids in tow, all while reassuring them that they’re both safe and loved.
As you work to manage your separation, don’t forget that our team of experienced family lawyers is here to help. We’ll advocate on behalf of you and your kids, ensuring that your family is protected during even the most high-stakes divorce. Reach out to us to learn what we can do for your case.