Divorces can be messy for all parties involved. For your children, overhearing an argument between you and your partner can have a deeper impact on their mental health than you think. A divorce not only breaks up a foundation and a way of life that your child is used to, it places them on a very slippery slope that if not maneuvered correctly, could have detrimental backlash. According to Dr. Cassie Yu of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Swedish Pediatrics, “Divorce is tough on children because their sense of security is strongly derived from having a stable home. Continuing that stability throughout the divorce can protect your child and mitigate the emotional insecurity that comes from losing their home life.”
Although challenging, there are ways to handle your divorce so that your children can emerge on solid – albeit different – ground. Here’s how to shield your child from the negative aspects of your divorce and sustain their mental health:
Establish ground rules
Dr. Yu recommends, “The most important rule is as parents, you must be unified and in complete solidarity throughout the whole process in front of your child. Do everything you can to reach that point whether it’s practicing what to say, speaking to a therapist or developing a timeline. Using that solidarity, figure out how to present your divorce and the situation to your child. Without total agreement, your child’s sense of security will be truly impaired. Start there and make it another rule not to argue or disagree with each other in front of your children. I would highly recommend not disclosing your divorce to your kids if you haven’t yet reached an agreement.”
Factor in their age
Divorce impacts children differently depending on their age. “Toddlers in early childhood are shielded because they aren’t yet in tune with those emotions. Kids who are going through a preadolescent phase sometimes have a tough time because they have a new relationship with their parents and are just on the verge of understanding emotions and what things mean. If you have a teenager, they can be impacted depending on how parents handle the process. Teenagers have lots of emotions post-puberty and are capable of complex thinking. If you go through a positive divorce they can be protected, whereas a messy divorce can lead to emotional turmoil,” explains Dr. Yu.
Respect your partner
“I can’t stress enough that parents need to shift their focus away from each other and onto their children. I see so many tragic outcomes that stem from traumatic divorces where one parent will talk badly about the other in front of their children. Despite what you think, that kind of negative talk hurts your children. As children, knowing that their parents engage negativity like criticizing each other to them adds stress to their mental health. Just because the parents don’t agree with each other doesn’t mean they can’t agree on what’s best for their child. Children are resilient – as long as you are promoting a positive experience by respecting each other, they can continue to develop without enduring mental impact,” says Dr. Yu.
Support your children
“Young children tend to personalize everything and blame themselves for their parent’s divorce, says Dr. Yu. No matter how old your child is, it’s crucial that they fully understand that they are not at fault. Never use your children as bargaining chips when communicating with your partner, rather, leave your children out of any disagreement and only focus on supporting and reassuring them throughout this difficult process.”
Dr. Yu adds, “Divorce is going to happen, it’s commonplace. However, it doesn’t have to hurt your children. It’s possible to be a strong parent and role model and carry on with your divorce without any lasting damage to your kid’s mental health. Divorce can shatter a child’s world, but there is every opportunity to build it back up just as strongly as if you were married.”
To speak to a therapist about your divorce and how you can continue to protect your child, refer to our directory.