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Divorce: Helping Children Cope

For adults and children alike, the end of a marriage can threaten the very core of one's security. But, it's especially difficult for children, who are likely to feel confused, angry, unsettled and distressed. If you're in the process of divorcing, the tips that follow may help your children cope and – in time – thrive.

Break the news

As soon as you're certain of your plans, sit down with your children for a heart-to-heart about your decision to live separately. Don't hide it until the last minute. As much as possible, keep your spouse involved in the discussion and try to remain civil toward each other. As hurt as you may be, know that blame and hurtful words have no place in this conversation.

Younger children generally do best with simple explanations. For example, "Mom and Dad are going to live apart so we won't fight so much. But, we both love you very much. We'll help you get through this." Older children may surprise you with probing questions. Be honest. But, remember that they shouldn't be told every detail – and certainly not ugly specifics.

Reassure your child

All children need to know that the divorce isn't their fault. Your child may recall disobeying or disappointing you and worry that this has caused your breakup. That's particularly the case if your child is younger than age 3 years. Reassure your child that this is simply not true.

Your child will also be concerned about how his or her life will change.

Almost certainly, he or she will have questions about the future: Where will I live? Who will I live with? Will I go to the same school? You may not have every answer until you settle the terms of your divorce. However, do emphasize this: Both you and your soon-to-be ex will continue to love and support your child as much as ever.

Don't put your child in the middle

Forcing a child to choose sides only adds to the pain of divorce. Children see themselves in both parents. For instance, your child may have your features and your spouse's temperament. So, when parents say hurtful things to each other, the child can feel hurt and insulted, too.

For the good of your child:

  • Don't complain about your spouse to your child or use your child as a pawn to get back at your spouse.
  • Never fight with your spouse in front of your child.
  • Avoid turning your child into a messenger. If you need to communicate with your spouse, do so directly.
  • Allow your child to spend time with your spouse without making him or her feel guilty about it.

You can also help your child by encouraging him or her to honestly express sad, angry or anxious feelings. These emotions are entirely normal. Now, more than ever, children need to know their feelings matter and their parents care.

Watch for red flags

Many children weather divorce with relatively few problems. But, be aware that some have a difficult time. Your child may need a counselor's help if he or she:

  • Acts younger than his or her actual age – particularly around the issue of toilet training
  • Fears being apart from either parent
  • Is increasingly angry
  • Develops sleeping or eating problems
  • Has trouble at school or with peers or resists going to school
  • Withdraws from you

Of course, your child may not be the only one feeling the effects of divorce. Don't hesitate to turn to a counselor yourself if you feel emotionally overwhelmed. The stronger you feel, the more you can support your child.

Be sure to check your benefit plan to see if Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) counseling services are available to you. Whether they're through UnitedHealthcare or another plan, the sessions usually are free to the consumer. Always check the number of covered EAP sessions. They vary from plan to plan.

Source: Healthy Mind Healthy Body®, May 2010.

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