Ask an expert: How is our divorce likely to affect our children?

January 17, 2020 9:00:53 AM

My husband and I have just split up – how are our children likely to react in these early stages of the separation?

Child psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas, spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP), says: “In the complicated task of setting up two homes and new arrangements for children to see both parents, how are the children really feeling as time goes on? Much of this depends on their age, and the circumstances around the now-separated family. Add into this equation, how each adult is feeling.

“The first element of assessing children’s reaction is to take stock of the adult emotions, and make sure the tensions and resentments aren’t expressed to the kids.

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Does this statement give you anxiety? The answer is a big HELL YES for me!! Some divorces may be amicable (or so I’ve heard) and I’m envious of those. At one time, I thought “all will settle down and we will be able to get along and co-parent for our kids”…Let me be the first to tell you, I was W R O N G! There’s no chance of getting along in some situations and we just have to live with it and do the best we can. Here are some tips for different scenarios: 😡The Punisher: Angry, always looking to battle and engage in anyway and 99% negativity. 😎YOU: Gray rock. Try your best to not respond unless needed, and if you respond have it in writing with zero emotion or extra words. LESS WORDS, less response. Become so boring the fight is a one sided, no fun street. Also, around the kids, quick exchanges and minimal eye contact and words. Not cold, or warm, just existing and getting it done. 〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️ 🥺The Victim: Sad, always mistreated and always needing more or complaining nothing is fair. 😎ALSO YOU: Don’t feed into the long, whining conversations. Stick to the plan. PERIOD. It’s probably best to create a “broken record” sentence you can use each time the whine wagon comes barreling towards you. Example: “I’d like to focus on moving forward.” Be the positive source for your kids and show them life is about what we do have, not what we don’t. 〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️〰️ 🤥The Flake: Unreliable, never sure if they can get the kids or just doesn’t follow through as planned. 🧐YOU: Prioritize how your kids feel. Are they hurt their parent didn’t show up for something? Check on their feelings and be ready to listen and help them cope. You keep track of it all and revisit your parenting agreement if needed to ensure your kids are getting the love, security and routine they need. ⚒TOOL⚒ Check out @ourfamilywizard tool which helps you organize your parenting schedule, track child expenses and communicate when necessary while documenting everything. Pro tip— I waited two years to adopt this tool and regretted it. Should you ever need records of communication, it is much easier to pull from this court recommended tool than from calls, emails and texts.

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“Preschool and early primary children see the world in simple factual terms which they then imagine they control. So it can seem confusing to them that they don’t have access to a mum or dad as much as they did before. Even careful explanation of mummy and daddy living in separate houses can be met with, ‘So when is daddy coming back?’

“Young children may seem to accept the new situation but they can have  inner feelings which are hard to express, so you may see these in behaviour. Feeling a bit lost and small can be expressed through renewed need for cuddles, asking for a bottle or needing a parent close by at bedtime again. Toilet training may seem to have regressed. It’s just a way of saying they need time and assurance, and acknowledgement that a familiar routine has changed. If there are ongoing disturbances in sleep, or increased tantrums, this can be a sign extra professional help is needed.

“Children at older ages, between about seven and 12 years, will have more reasoning abilities to make some kind of story out of what’s happened. They can see from school friendships being made and lost that adults come together and part company too. However, all this thinking ability can mean they come up with the wrong conclusions too – like they did something wrong to make the divorce happen.


“A developing sense of justice might make them perceive one parent is the baddy and the other the goody. Whatever the circumstances, it’s important one parent doesn’t confirm this in talk about blame and fault. They’ll have both parents for life, and need to keep doors open to each for the future.

“Some primary-age children may express their feelings openly, saying how sad and angry they are, and these feelings need listening to, rather than smoothing over. But very often children at this age become silent, internalising what they really feel in an effort to be ‘good’ and not upset anyone. So here parents need to really look for signs of the ongoing confusion, and offer lots of encouragement to talk.

“This is where neutral family members and adult friends can be a helpful listening ear. Signs that help is needed might include a drop in self-esteem, reports of behaviour issues at school, nightmares, sleep or food disruption.

“Teenagers in some ways are like big toddlers – this stage of development reverts to a focus on self. They may still be smarting about the divorce and the fact that all the disruption has ‘ruined my life’. It may be that new living arrangements have disrupted their friend base and ease of access to outside life.

“What else is going on for them? It’s really important to consider the bigger picture, especially for adolescents who can be upset about their own relationships, online social difficulties or exams as well as their divorced parents. Extra help will offer some stability for teens facing big exams.

“You may sense real distress long before it’s verbalised, so don’t be afraid to get help. The biggest areas of concern are children internalising and not saying anything. Child psychotherapists are well positioned to understand the undercurrents of feeling in the children, and also able to help you navigate through to calmer waters.”