Help your children through your divorce

If you and your husband decide to split up, your children’s natural distress adds to the heartache. We offer practical tips to help them come to terms with it.

“Our parents’ relationship with each other sets the foundation and imprint of our own life and future relating,” explains Joanna Kleovoulou, clinical psychologist and director of Psych Matters Family Therapy Centre. Therefore, if you and your spouse are planning to divorce, it’s important to guide your kids through the transition carefully so that they understand they’re not to blame and that building healthy, happy relationships is possible.


  • No matter how acrimonious your divorce might be, agree upfront with your ex-husband that you’ll continue to co-operate as responsible, loving parents. And mean it.
  • Never disparage your ex-husband in front of your children, no matter how angry or bitter you are towards him. He’s divorced from you – not from them – and they need to know they can love their father without feeling as if they’re betraying you. Similarly, don’t allow them to speak disrespectfully about him to you. For example, if your kids ask: “Mom, why did you divorce Dad?”

Wrong response: “Because he’s a two-timing, lying, worthless son-of-a-b—h!”

Right response: “Because we realised we have very different ways of looking at the world, we need different things and we were hurting each other and making each other miserable sharing the same space. We’re both a lot happier like this.”

  • Don’t use your children as messengers or weapons between you and your ex-husband. They’re not part of this battle and you have no right to draw them into it. Respect your ex’s rights to see them and never ask them to spy on him or his new home/love interest.
  • Inform your former husband about the children’s boyfriends or girlfriends, illnesses, behavioural or academic problems, achievements at school, etc. Include him in decisions made about these issues.
  • Don’t allow your children to play you and your ex-husband off against each other using guilt as a tactic. Your divorce isn’t an issue for which they need to be compensated with gifts, money or permission to behave badly. If one of you forbids something, make sure the other knows it and endorses the rule. For example, if your kids say: “Dad lets us go to bed at 10pm or Dad lets us watch this programme.”

Wrong response: “That’s because he’s too stupid/selfish to know or care about what’s good for you.”

Right response: “Well, I don’t allow it. These are the rules here and I’ll discuss this with your father next time we talk. Meanwhile, off to bed/switch off the TV.”

  • Reassure your children that they’re still loved and needed by both their parents and that the divorce wasn’t their fault. Many children – especially younger ones – assume this happened because they did something wrong.
  • Control your emotions in front of your children and remain the adult in your relationship with them. Don’t confide in them about your broken heart, anger, resentment, etc and don’t cry on their shoulders about it. It’s neither fair nor dignified to turn them into your sounding boards.
  • However, encourage your children to express their fears, insecurities and feelings to you. They need to know they can ask you anything and that you’ll reply honestly and non-judgementally.
  • Be patient. It’s natural for kids to go through distress when their parents separate. Little ones may express anguish through bedwetting, tantrums, tearfulness, etc, while teenagers may become withdrawn, moody or hostile. In most cases, these phases will eventually subside. If they persist, seek help from a counsellor. Keep telling your children you understand their pain and that both you and their father still love them and are there for them.
  • Keep your perspective. Tell your children that you’re all going to survive this and it’s still possible for you all to live happily ever after. Don’t let them magnify the divorce into an event of catastrophic proportions. Show them that life goes on, nobody’s died, and that both you and your former husband are actually happier people now that you’re apart.

Growing pains

As your children grow up and start developing relationships of their own, should they ask for your advice, try to ensure they don’t re-enact the mistakes you made with their father. “Help them acknowledge the truth about their childhoods,” stresses Kleovoulou.

“Encourage them to take the risk of changing and relearning a fresh, healthy way of engaging with a partner that will result in a happy, secure and enriched relationship. If necessary, individual and couples counselling will provide a safe place to work through their childhood wounds.” Realise, though, that you can’t protect your children from all relationship strife; you can merely provide emotional support when they ask for it.

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