Positive tools for thriving families.

Tips for protecting children from divorce tug-of-wars.

Approximately 40-50% of couples end up in divorce in the United States (CDC; Washington Post, 2014), and approximately 1.5 million children are affected by divorce each year (Scientific American, 2013). Research has demonstrated that divorce can contribute to significant consequences in children, including anger, depression, anxiety, school and social difficulties, and even changes in long-term attitudes towards marriage and divorce (Fidler and Bala, 2010; Kinsfogel and Grych, 2004; Johnston, 1994; Grych and Fincham, 2001; Cui and Fincham, 2010). Simultaneously, research also suggests that many children cope, adapt, and fare well after a divorce (Scientific American, 2013).

Hence, divorcing parents frequently ask, “What should we say to our children? How do we help our children cope with the divorce?” Parents wonder if there any buffers to minimize the potentially debilitating effects of divorce.

Though children are unique, as are family situations, there are some solid guidelines to follow. (Emory, 2006; Pedro-Caroll, 2010; Gaies and Morris, 2014). Barring any trauma or other ongoing stressors, counselors often recommend the following to facilitate children’s adaptation to divorce:

  1. No Blame Games: Avoid blaming the other when you explain the divorce. Although there are varying circumstances surrounding divorce, ideally, it is better if the child is not exposed to ‘whose fault it is’. Children need to continue to love each parent in unblemished and unconditional ways. If parents begin to assign blame on one parent, the child is likely to feel more anger and resentment toward that parent. Parents should use neutral and non-judgmental language. Use words like “changed”, “disagreement”, and “arguing”. Although this is simplistic language, we need to gear our explanations in developmentally appropriate ways. More importantly, we need to avoid damaging the child’s relationship with the other parent by keeping it as neutral as possible.
  2. No Put-Downs of the Other Parent: Parents should avoid labeling the other in negative terms regarding characteristics, personality, and parenting. No matter how angry adults may be at each other, it is best the child not witness anger and negativity. Even if one parent has made the choice to end the marriage, it is important the other shows respect for that choice to the child, and not assign blame and abandonment to the other parent. Again, children need to continue to idealize and stay connected to each parent. Cognitively and emotionally, it is hard for children to do this if a parent is barraging the child with negative information about the other parent.
  3. Fairness: When two reasonable and competent parents are involved in a divorce, we ask each parent to be fair regarding schedules, holidays, birthdays, etc. Fairness also includes financial, health, and school decisions. The more you treat each other with fairness and respect (which the child will immediately know and feel), the better the outcomes for the child.
  4. Consistency and Predictability: Divorce can be an enormous transition for children. Sometimes they have to move homes, schools, friends, and even states. Their world can suddenly begin to feel unstable and unknown, which can cause anxiety. Financial pressure can also change parents’ availability and presence for the child. The greater the consistency and predictability in terms of home, schools, friendships, etc., the more secure the child is likely to feel.
  5. Unique Developmental Needs of Each Child: Each child is unique. Based on age and developmental issues, each child within the family has their own developmental track, cognitive functioning, and emotional capacity. Parents need to be cognizant of each child’s developmental stage and his/her needs. Ideally, parents should be flexible when it comes to planning the transition of the divorce and the new living situation based on each child’s developmental capacity.
  6. Language: Use language and words that are child-friendly and developmentally appropriate. It is sometimes hard for adults to find words that clearly explain a big topic like divorce. Adults should emphasize simplicity, empathy, play, and validation in their conversations. Storytelling is an excellent way for adults to explore difficult feelings and questions with young children.
  7. Cooperative Co-parenting: When parents continue to present, engage, and cooperatively co-parent the child during and after the divorce, the child fares better. Conflict, disagreements, and ‘stuckness’ between the parents regarding the child’s schedules, finances, schools, and living situation should be resolved quickly and permanently for the child to adapt to the divorce. Research demonstrates that chronic, high-conflict divorces typically have the hardest impact on the child.
  8. Small, Developmentally Appropriate Sound Bytes: Divorcing parents often ask, “How much should I share with my child?” Oftentimes, adults believe that if they have one or two ‘sit down, long talks’ with a child, the child will understand the issue. However, children process in bits and pieces – on the move, in and out of play, and in unpredictable moments. Share the facts in small bytes, and don’t overwhelm the child with too much information. Adults should create, expect, and respond to ongoing dialogues throughout the transition. Allow the child to immerse in play, fantasy, and imagination to work through their questions and feelings over time.
  9. Honesty and Transparency: Professionals usually encourage parents to be honest and use the words ‘separate’ and ‘divorce’ (once the decision has been made). If you don’t use those words and don’t explain what it means, children are more likely to be confused and anxious – as their imaginations are more powerful than the truth. Details about the divorce should only be shared in an age-appropriate way and if necessary. Consulting with professionals about how much to share could be beneficial.
  10. Validation: Don’t be afraid to process and validate feelings – even negative ones. Be confident in facilitating a range of feelings with the child. Adults should encourage and validate the child’s expressions via stories, drawings, letters, play, and conversations. Bottling it up or denying it does not help. However, be sure to also provide reassurance and hope, as this is important to communicate to the child.

Although divorce may not be easy for children to process or adapt to, following the above guidelines can help enormously in ensuring your children will continue to thrive during and after this significant life change.


2 responses to “Protecting Children from Divorce Tug-of-Wars: Ten Golden Rules”

  1. […] Changes, a book helping parents explain divorce to young children, is offering a gift ebook with 10 Golden Rules that Protect Children from Divorce Tug-of-Wars. […]

  2. […] Changes, a book helping parents explain divorce to young children, is offering a gift ebook with 10 Golden Rules that Protect Children from Divorce Tug-of-Wars. […]

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  • Exceptional, impressive, thoroughly 'kid friendly' from beginning to end, "Family Changes: Explaining Divorce to Children" should be a part of every community library Parenting Studies collections. For families with young children who are having to deal with divorce, "Family Changes: Explaining Divorce to Children" will prove to be an invaluable and instructive aid.

    Editor in Chief - Midwest Book Review

  • Those of us parenting, working with, or caring for children experiencing divorce will welcome Family Changes as a unique, positive, and creative resource for helping children understand and cope with this complicated transition. The comprehensive note to adults effectively explains how children work through painful questions and feelings. The touching story—with the endearing Zoey and her attempt to understand a very grown up topic—ends with extremely helpful follow up questions that will be highly valued by parents, child advocates, therapists, and others who wish to better serve children during this difficult time. I highly recommend this book to parents and professionals.

    Sacha Coupet, Ph.D., J.D. Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor of Family Law, Loyola University, Chicago, IL

  • Family Changes: Explaining Divorce to Children is an outstanding book that is gentle, positive, and validating for both children and adults. With an excellent and informative parent guide about the value of talking to children about their feelings, a highly sensitive and engaging story with exquisite illustrations, and an effective list of questions that children typically ask, this book is essential reading for divorcing families, and for therapists and advocates working with children of divorce.

    Sandra A. Graham-Bermann, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Michigan

  • Family Changes is an inspiring and exceptional book on divorce. It explains divorce in a developmentally appropriate and comforting language that validates children's complex feelings about divorce. Dr. Maker's expertise and years of experience working with children who are coping with the grief and confusion that often accompany divorce shine through in every page. I highly recommend this book to divorcing parents, schools, libraries, and professionals working with children of divorce.

    Martha Crowe, M.A. Child Development, Institute for Public Health, San Diego State University, CA

  • Dr. Maker has brought us this excellent child-centric educational book about how to navigate the changes of a family undergoing divorce. Dr. Maker takes us through this experience from the child's point of view and shares the gift of positive transformation that can occur during this life-changing time. The illustrations are sublime and the topic is handled so gently and ingeniously. Of course, it is written by a child psychologist with the gift of creativity. It's a book that every child therapist, library, school, and families going through a divorce should have on their shelves.

    Krista Royabal, M.D., Psychiatrist, Executive Medical Director, True Life Center for Wellbeing, CA

  • Based on the typical emotional turbulence a child feels from separation or divorce, Family Changes receives high recommendation as the first title that adults should turn to in the effort to explain, explore, and support a child's feelings in the matter, concluding with a list of 'process questions' which adults can use to further enhance the story line's overall approach.

    CA Bookwatch/Donovan’s Literary Services/Recommended Reading

  • The story touches on several key issues that children worry about - will their parents still love them, will they have two homes now, did they somehow cause the divorce, etc. The book also opens with a straightforward Note to Adults and ends with a list of questions that adults can discuss with children. Often books that do a good job of explaining divorce and separation are so focused on the child's point-of-view, that they don't offer any advice for the parents, caregivers, and teachers that are trying to help the child makes sense of it all. Family Changes avoids that problem and gives good guidelines for adults. I would recommend this book to parents and other family members, educators, and counselors.

    NetGalley Reviews/The Fairview Review - Librarian

  • This story is filled with little moments that reflect the nature of children perfectly. If you need to explain what it means to be divorced or separated to your child then this is one of the best ways to do that. The book is filled with relatable emotions and questions that a lot of children will have if their family is going through a separation. Dr. Maker’s years of experience are evident in the story as she masterfully addresses many common concerns for children experiencing a divorce in their family.

    The Littlest Bookshelf