The Children

Be Honest

Don’t lead your child to believe “Dad’s away on business” or “Everything is going to be wonderful” Children are very perceptive. They know if a parent is trying to hide something, even if the purpose is to spare their feelings. Children need straight forward answers they can understand, without blame or making anyone wrong or bad.

Let your child know it is not their fault

All children in divorced families assume they may be responsible for their parents’ breakup. Children need to be gently reassured, repeatedly over the first couple of years, that divorce is an adult decision having nothing to do with them or their behavior.

Listen Quietly

Children have many questions, feelings, assumptions and concerns about divorce. Many parents find it difficult to just sit quietly and listen to their children talk without trying to interrupt with a “Fix-it” statement to help them feel better. Children need to feel heard with quiet patience and undivided attention.

Let your child know it is normal for them to want their parents to get back together

Children can feel ashamed about this very normal wish. You can explain to your child that one divorced, it is very unlikely that people ever get back together, but their wish for reconciliation is very normal.

Let your child know that however they respond to the divorce is O.K.

Many children hide their feelings of sadness, grief, anger or confusion because they are afraid expressing these feelings will upset their parents. Children need to know their feelings are acceptable.

Ask your child about friends of theirs whose parents are divorced

This is a good way to learn of your child’s fears and assumptions about divorced parents, and gives you the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions and remind them that other children have gone through what they are now going through.

Don’t put your child in the middle or try to make them take sides

Don’t say anything about your ex in ear-shot of your child. Don’t have your child carry messages to your ex. Children need to be able to love both parents. If one parent is disapproving of affection a child expresses toward the other parent, the child will begin to withdraw, become dishonest or depressed.

Spend time with caring friends

Having your own supportive network can protect your child from becoming your confidant and feeling responsible for your emotional well-being. It can also give you a higher frustration tolerance for the normal everyday things kids do. Spend time with friends who will help feed your spiritual side. This is the time to feel loved and connected with those who care about you.

Read together and talk about a book on divorce for children

This will help you explain important facts to your child and help your child formulate questions they might otherwise not have words for. A wonderful interactive book to read with your child is "MY Parents Still Love Me Even Though They’re Getting Divorced," written by Dr. Lois Nightengale. (714) 993-5343

How can I tell if my child needs help?

Many adults now acknowledge of a supportive professional as they face the challenges divorce inevitably brings. But many parents are unsure at what point their child may be exhibiting signs that indicate a need for professional counseling.

  • Sleep disturbances (nightmares or difficulty going to sleep)
  • Eating Changes (complaints of stomach hurting, increased pickiness in food choices, finding solace in eating sweets or high fat foods)
  • School Problems (a child once social may isolate or push peers away, aggressiveness)
  • Withdrawal
  • Outbursts of Anger or Destructive Behavior (can verbal or physical)
  • Trying Hard to get parents to reconcile
  • Becoming the “Perfect” child or confidant
  • Coping with a difficult custody battle

© 2004 Lois V. Nightengale, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, (714) 993-5343, Director of Nightengale Center in Yorba Linda, CA, Author of “My Parents Still Love Me Even Though They’re Getting Divorced”

Rights of Children of Divorce

  • Continue to love both parents without guilt or disapproval (subtle or overt) by either parent or other relatives.
  • Be repeatedly reassured that the divorce is not their fault.
  • Be assured they are safe for and their needs will be provided for.
  • Have a special place for their own belongings at both parents’ residences.
  • Visit both parents regardless of what the adults in the situation feel, and regardless of convenience, or money situations.
  • Express anger and sadness in their own way, according to age and personality (not have to give justification for their feelings or have to cope with trying to be talked out of their feelings by adults).
  • Not be messengers between parents; not to carry notes, legal papers, money or requests between parents.
  • Not make adult decisions, including where they will live, where and when they will be picked up or dropped off, or who is to blame.
  • Love as many people as they choose without being made to feel guilty or disloyal.(Loving and being loved by many people is good for children; there is not a limit on the number of people a child can love.)
  • Continue to be kids, i.e. not take on adult duties and responsibilities or become a parent’s confidant, companion or comforter (i.e. not to hear repeatedly about financial problems or relationship difficulties).
  • Stay in contact with relatives, including grandparents and special family friends.
  • Choose to spend at least one week a year living apart from their custodial parent.
  • Not be on an airplane, train or bus on major holidays for the convenience of the adults.
  • Have teachers and school informed about the status of their families.
  • Have time with each parent doing activities that create a sense of closeness and special memories.
  • Have a daily and weekly schedule that is predictable and can be verified by looking at a schedule on a calendar in a system understandable to the child (For instance: a green line represents the scheduled time with dad, and a purple line represents the scheduled time with mom, etc.).
  • Participate in sports, special classes or clubs that support their unique interests, and have adults that will get them to these events, on time without guilt or shame.
  • Contact absent parent and have phone conversations without eavesdropping or tape-recording.
  • Ask questions and have them answered respectfully with age-appropriate answers that do not include blaming or belittlements of anyone
  • Have consistent and predictable boundaries in each home. (Although the rules in each house may differ significantly, each parent’s set of rules needs to be predictable with their household).
  • Be protected from hearing adult arguments and disputes.
  • Have parents communicate (even if only in writing) about their medical treatment, psychological treatment, educational issues, accidents or illnesses.
  • Not be interrogated upon from the other parent’s home or asked to spy in the other parent’s home.
  • Own pictures of parents.
  • Choose to talk with a special adult about their concerns and issues (counselor, therapist or special friend).

© 1998 Dr. Lois V. Nightengale, Clinical Psychologist (lic.# PSY9503), Professional Speaker and director of the Nightengale Counseling Center in Yorba Linda, Ca. She is the author of several books, including "My Parents Still Love Me Even Though They’re getting Divorced."

Something for the Children

Almost half the children in this country will experience the separation of their parents before they are 16 years old. For most children this is a very painful life defining experience. Our Children’s Divorce Workshop is a group experience for your child with other children who are “in the same boat” and is designed and supervised by licensed therapists to give them a safe place to get in touch with what they are feeling and to talk about it with others, Here is a video that could also help parents to address these consequences by giving the children guidance in sharing and discussing their lives. It may also be a good exercise for intact families to watch this video to help their children promote understanding and compassion of their friends divorce experiences. Personal experiences and feelings of children as the parents go through divorce, and then coping with two homes, are told in “SPLIT, A Film for Kids of Divorce (and their Parents),” a 30 minute documentary. It is a deeply personal film made in collaboration with children ages 6 to 12, exploring the often frightening and always life altering separations/divorces of their parents.