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How to Protect the Mental Health of Children During a Divorce

Michael Tierney
November 20, 2022

Despite the longstanding association between marriage and lifelong commitment, not every union is "until death do they part." Some marriages end in divorce for various reasons, primarily irreconcilable differences. Most issues are incredibly complex and cannot be resolved due to rising hostility between the couple.

Some of the biggest issues between spouses include infidelity or disagreements about lifestyle or the future. Sometimes, couples can amicably separate and begin divorce proceedings without much trouble. Unfortunately, it is more common for couples to find themselves in a heated divorce in which tensions and tempers flare. While these hostile divorces can be stressful and unpleasant for the couple, others are affected by aggressive separations.

Our children look to us for guidance and support and rely on us for stability. In their formative years, children are easily influenced by the behaviors and tone of their parents. They also absorb more from stressful events than you might realize, and divorce proceedings can be very upsetting for them. The emotional and mental strain we experience during divorce can be felt by our children just as strongly.

Solution The biggest issue is that children do not have the same coping mechanisms as their parents. This means that couples going through a divorce must take steps to protect their children's mental health throughout the process.

Consider Your Children's Emotions

While this advice might seem trite and somewhat irrelevant, keeping track of your children's emotions is crucial to protecting your children's mental health. Your children will have serious emotional responses to the prospect of their parents getting divorced and needing support. While divorce can be very taxing on your mental health, your children will have fewer tools for expressing those emotions.

While it might be difficult to open yourself up to other people's concerns when dealing with divorce, it is important to keep your children's emotions in mind. Otherwise, your children might begin a cycle of repressing their emotions rather than healthily expressing them.

Mother Considering Child's Emotions

The best way to do this is to create an atmosphere in the home where your children can freely express their emotions without judgment. Younger children might be more prone to emotional outbursts, while teenagers might attempt to suppress their feelings, believing their emotions are unfair or unimportant to them. It will be up to you to approach them and ask how they feel while reassuring them that their emotions are valid. Without emotional openness, your children might repress their emotions and express them in unhealthy or dangerous ways.

This is not to say that you should not focus on your own emotional needs, but you must also account for your children's emotions. While keeping track of your children's emotions is important to protect their mental health, there is an important caveat.

Do Not Turn Your Child Into Emotional Counsel

Opening yourself up to your child's emotional needs is important, but it is important to remember children are not emotionally equipped to handle heavy emotions. They are already dealing with complex emotions they might struggle to work through. When discussing emotional stressors with friends or family, it is common for the discussion to be an equal exchange where you each confide in each other about your emotional states. This can make doing so with your child tempting, but this could significantly backfire.

Your children are already struggling to cope with the emotional strain of seeing their parents get divorced. This strain could be compounded if the cause of the divorce is negligent or uncaring behavior from your spouse. While the end of a marriage might cause you to seek a confidant, your child should not be who you choose. Your child will need support to process the complex emotions they are experiencing during your divorce.

Solution By using them as a confidant, you are placing more responsibility on them than they should have.

Father Discussing Divorce With Child

Your children are experiencing the trials of divorce alongside you, and it can be just as devastating to them. By sharing your emotional struggles and using them as support, they are forced to shoulder your feelings alongside theirs, which could strain their mental health to the breaking point. While going through something emotionally trying, you must retain the responsibilities of parenthood and not place the weight of divorce on your child's shoulders. There are still other factors to consider when it comes to the mental health of your children amidst divorce proceedings.

Do Not Bad Mouth Your Spouse

Some divorces are extremely hostile, and you and your spouse might find each other dealing with unprecedented hostility. You might have more arguments with your spouse as you navigate the divorce, which can spike the animosity in your relationship. Unfortunately, such arguments can make expressing your frustrations with your spouse difficult since they might walk away from the discussion altogether. Turning to friends or family to express your frustration and talk about your spouse's behavior is common. A common issue in some relationships is that people can take those complaints a step further and actively bad-mouth their spouse to others.

An even more serious offense is when people attempt to turn their children against the other spouse by bad-mouthing their spouse to them. In times of frustration with your spouse, you might be tempted to bad mouth them to your children. You might not do so to turn them against your spouse, but even venting about their behavior can radicalize your children against them.

A Child's Parents Divorcing

The biggest issue with this behavior is that your children are essentially being tasked with taking sides between their parents. Given the significance of each parent in their birth, they are being forced to choose between different sides of themselves.

This can affect their self-image and damage their future relationship with their other parent. While some parents no longer deserve a relationship with their child, a hostile divorce does not necessarily make your spouse a bad parent. Bad-mouthing your spouse to your children is one of the more underhanded techniques employed in divorce and should be avoided at all costs. In the next section, we will discuss the proper discourse about the role you, your spouse, and your children play in divorce proceedings.

Assure Them They Are Not At Fault

While it might sound cliché, it is common for children to believe they are the cause of your divorce and will respond accordingly. Even though children are virtually never the cause of divorce, the emotional responses of their parents can cause them to believe otherwise. This phenomenon is most commonly seen in children between 3 and 7 years old since most children this age understand the significance of divorce.

The problem is that, at this age, children assume their actions or misbehavior triggered the separation. This self-blame can cause your children to act out or become solemn. Children this age have no way of effectively managing these emotions or shaking their feelings of guilt.

Father Assuring Child

The best thing you can do to help your child avoid feeling responsible for your divorce is to address the issue directly. When the divorce process begins, you should take your children aside and discuss the split with them. To ensure the best results, you should do this with your spouse present so that it comes from both of you. In this conversation, explain to your child that the divorce is not because of them. This reassurance might seem obvious to you, but it could make all the difference in protecting your child's mental health.

Assuring your child that they are not the cause of your divorce helps prevent any sensation of guilt and allows them to maintain a healthy state of mind during the divorce. Otherwise, they might be left with a sensation of guilt over something outside their control. Allowing such feelings to fester could cause them to develop emotional issues later in life.

Do Not Let the Divorce Affect Their Schedule

Children need stability for proper mental development. This stability extends to their scheduled activities and obligations that enable them to interact with the wider world. When going through a divorce, it is common for you to become a little distracted and allow certain things to fall through the cracks. It is critical that you not allow this to extend to the schedule for your children so you can maintain that stability in their lives.

You have likely worked hard to cultivate a schedule for your child to balance their education, leisure, nutrition, and activity times. When that schedule is disrupted, it can be confusing and make them feel like less of a priority.

Even after the divorce, you must ensure that their schedule remains consistent when they are with the non-custodial parent. Otherwise, they might rebel against one parent in favor of the other's schedule or cause whiplash when their schedules radically differ between households. Overly different schedules could leave your child struggling to maintain routines and disrupt their development.

Parent Maintaining Child's Schedule

Schedules help children feel they have control in their lives and help them feel secure. Without that security, they are more prone to anxiety disorders, or cost them their time management skills in their later years.

Maintaining your child's schedule during divorce, a situation far outside their control, helps preserve the little control they have in their lives. This can help them feel less stressed during the divorce proceedings and mitigate the emotional strain they experience. Conversely, maintaining the schedule post-divorce helps them feel that the dissolution of your marriage has not changed the family dynamic. While there are certain undeniable changes, they will still feel like you are family while their schedule remains the same.

Do Not Limit Contact With Your Spouse

While some divorces can get a little messy, it is important to remember your spouse is still their parent. Your children will always have a love and attachment that you must not tamper with unless your spouse threatens their safety or yours.

A Child Ignoring Their Mother

Aside from that, you should never try to keep your spouse from seeing your children since it could backfire in one of 2 ways:

  • The first way such limited contact could backfire is that they might lose respect for your spouse's authority and no longer view them as a parental figure. Such behavior could cause them to rebel against your spouse and reject any time they are meant to spend with them under the divorce agreement.
  • The second way it could backfire is that they could resent you for keeping them from their parent. This could cause rebellious behavior toward you and cost you your parental authority over your children.

Instead, you should foster your children's relationship with your spouse so that they can contribute to your children's development. Having the input of 2 parents is usually more successful than a single parent, though single parents are still very effective. The key is that your children will want a relationship with both of you, and denying that when your spouse is a good parent is only going to harm them and you.

Learn the Law

Divorce is an unpleasant and emotionally turbulent process that can be disruptive to everyone involved. While adults experience a great deal of emotional strain during divorce, it can be just as debilitating for the children born of the union. Children's emotional responses are not fully developed, so a major change, like their parents divorcing, can tax their mental health. Children need just as much mental health support as adults and are equally as sensitive as we are, which makes maintaining their mental health through divorce extremely important.

Couple With Children Divorcing

This is not to say you should neglect your mental health during the divorce or that your feelings are unimportant. Unfortunately, certain divorce cases are more hostile and unpleasant than others, and you might need to prepare in other ways. Learning more about divorce and certain scenarios that might affect your case can help you prepare for the legal side of the claim.

This can help protect you emotionally by eliminating certain stressors that might make the situation more difficult. Knowledge can protect you legally and emotionally, but we realize this is an emotionally charged time. Regardless, we hope this article was helpful.

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Written By:
Michael Tierney

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