Honey, We Broke the Kids: Guiding Children through Divorce

When couples exchange the words “’til death do us part,” that promise doesn’t always stand the test of time. Divorce can happen for any number of reasons, including financial strain, conflict, disconnection, and infidelity. Even though divorce is common (perhaps as high as 50% of marriages), we know it isn’t easy for couples, especially when children are in the mix.

Many couples report significant apprehension in moving forward with separation or divorce in fear of breaking up the family or scarring their children for life. These are understandable and valid fears that can be influenced by several factors, a common one being a personal negative experience with divorce. If your own personal narrative involves recollections of parental conflict ending ultimately in divorce, one could understand why the word divorce would have a negative connotation. In addition, in films and on TV, Hollywood tends to portray families experiencing divorce in a damaging and destructive way.

What I urge couples, especially parents, to consider is the primary cause of hurt in their personal experiences, as well as in movies. If a couple separated due to financial distress, verbal/physical abuse, substance abuse/addiction, or infidelity, how much of that had an impact on the children, as compared to the actual divorce? Most people find that the primary injuries they suffered when their own parents separated had more to do with the initial problems in the marriage than from the divorce itself.

That being said, we can’t conclude that divorce is not difficult or stressful for children and families. But we do need to know that it can be handled in ways that facilitate a child’s growth and resilience. Responding to your child with warmth, empathy, validation, and assurance can help them both understand and cope with the transition they are facing. Being clear and direct about the impending changes, with both parents giving this information as a united front, can help children see that although you may not be married partners, you are still parents.

If you have any concerns that you, your child or family may need additional support during this time, counseling can be enormously helpful. Trained professionals in individual, child, and family therapy are able to offer assistance to those experiencing divorce. Research on children and the impact of divorce has lead to significant growth in the field of psychology and therapy. Family therapy and play therapy (with children) have been proven to address and improve the behaviors and difficulties attributed to the divorce or separation of parents, and individual therapy for older children or parents experiencing divorce can also be enormously helpful in providing support, alleviating distress, and facilitating future resilience.

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