How Do I Help My Child Who Is Struggling in a Divorce?

Divorce is filled with grief because it’s a sort of death. It’s the death of a family unit, a structure, a way of being, a way of having a self in the world. (Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.) It is a hard process for all family members and especially for children who often direct the guilt or other negative feelings inward and blame themselves. So, how parents could help adapt to a new reality and make the divorce process easier for children? 11 leading psychotherapists and mental health experts were kindly agreed to contribute their wisdom about How Do I Help My Child Who Is Struggling in a Divorce?

Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D.

Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D. is a Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, hosts In 2020, she was identified as one of the top 2% of scientists worldwide in a recent analysis of 8 million scientists around the world.

How do I help my child who is struggling in a divorce?

Child age matters. But here is one general idea.
I would urge parents to allow the child to have time outdoors, in complex natural environments, to be able to make connections with the natural world, something greater than the self. (This should happen from the beginning of life.) What builds nature connection are hours of self-directed free play in a forest or beach, climbing trees and hills, sitting on the earth. The child needs to feel like they have a place on the earth, that the world is not falling apart completely, that they will be alright. Nothing works better than having a steady nature connection with familiar landscape(s), animal(s), and activities outdoors.

Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.

Facebook: Deborah J Cohan Writing
Contributor for Psychology Today 
Twitter: @CohanDebcohan

Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. She is the author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregivingand Redemption (Rutgers University Press, 2020).

How do I help my child who is struggling in a divorce?

The most important thing to do to help children struggling with divorce is to assure them they are not at fault. It is crucial to not minimize the feelings that children have about divorce. Just as adults often experience divorce as a type of death, so do children.
The process of divorce is filled with grief because it’s a sort of death. It’s the death of a family unit, a structure, a way of being, a way of having a self in the world. So much needs to be re-configured physically and re-imagined psychically. Children can intuit that everything is changing, so minimizing their feelings will push them away more than create a trustworthy space.
And, you’re aiming for cultivating a trustworthy space, one in which children are not used as pawns by adults, where children can express their feelings and questions, and wherein the best of circumstances the adults will aim to have a kind divorce where what is said and what is remembered is filled with decency, integrity, compassion, and hope.

Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D.

Book website: 

Personal website: 

Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D., is a tenured Professor of Psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where she serves as the inaugural director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center and holds the Greg Brown Endowed Chair in Neuroscience. She is an internationally recognized and award-winning expert on genetic and environmental influences on human behavior. The author of The Child Code: Understanding your child’s unique nature for happier, more effective parenting.

How do I help my child who is struggling with divorce?
All children are wired differently, which means that it’s normal for them to respond in different ways to divorce. Some children may respond by acting out, others by withdrawing. How children respond to their environment will depend on their own unique genetic temperament.

Most parents recognize there is a problem child’s behavior changes after divorce; for example, when your extroverted child no longer wants to spend time with friends. But many parents don’t realize that environmental stressors can also exaggerate kids’ natural tendencies. Kids who are more introverted may need more time alone to process their feelings. Kids who are more emotional maybe even more distressed, upset, or easily frustrated than typical. Kids who are low on self-control may respond with more impulsive behavior.

When parents are going through a divorce, often they are experiencing their own heightened stress, which can make children’s exaggerated behaviors challenging for parents, especially when it’s not readily apparent that the behavior is a reflection of the child’s response to the divorce. Parents’ natural tendency may be to respond with punishment. This can have the unintended effect of making the behavior worse, and the transition more stressful for all involved.

It’s important for parents to realize that children need extra support, patience, and love during a divorce. This is the time to give everyone a break. Focus first on building a close and open relationship with your child.  Work collaboratively on challenges that are arising at home and problem-solve together. Divorce can make kids feel like their world is unpredictable. Kids need to know more than ever that you’re there for them, even when they’re not being their best selves.

Assael Romanelli, Ph.D.

Assael Romanelli, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker, licensed Couple & Family Therapist, and an international trainer and facilitator. He is also a seasoned theater improvisation performer and teacher and served as the artistic director of The Or Chozer Playback Theatre company for over a decade.

Dr. Romanelli is the founder and co-director (with his wife Galit) of The Potential State Institute For Enriching Relationships, which integrates therapy, art and education to create safe spaces for people to connect to themselves and others. Over the past two decades, Assael has worked with hundreds of individuals, couples, families, and organizations all over the world, helping them feel free in their relationships. Assael publishes content regularly on his popular blog on Psychology Today, as well as The Potential State Podcast and YouTube channel. He offers online zoom counseling for individuals, couples, and families.

How do I help my child who is struggling with divorce?

As a couple therapist, I get asked that question all the time when couples decide to divorce.

The first thing I want to remind you is that divorcing doesn’t automatically mess up your child. Assuming you did the work and tried to make things improve, Divorce does not equate to failure. I believe that the best gift we can give our children are happy, fulfilled parents. And staying together “just for the kids’ sake” or waiting “till they leave home” is the wrong motivation to stay together. Here are some tips that a good to keep in mind:

1. Hold on to co-parenting. Constantly remind yourself, your ex-partner, and your children that you two will be forever their parents, even if you are no longer lovers. Remind yourselves that every day in order to remember to operate from your best self when around your kids.

2. Contain your guilt. We all scar our children regardless of what we do. Those abrasions shape our children to become the person they will become. By divorcing you aren’t ‘ruining’ your child, so no need to be guilt-ridden. If you let your guilt control you, you’ll lose your parental integrity. Guilt-ridden parents try to cheer up the wounded child by either overcompensating with gifts and/or too lenient boundaries. a. You can contain your guilt by talking to a friend, therapist, mentor, or coach. Find a safe place to sublimate all your tough feelings, especially guilt so you won’t act it out on your children.

3. Minimize triangulation. Triangulation is when you consciously or unconsciously enlist a child into your dynamic with your ex-partner. This is frequently done by badmouthing your ex, letting them overhear your gossiping about your ex, or transmitting messages to your ex through them.

4. Share your feelings. Don’t pretend all is well. Be clear and transparent. Share your fears, sadness, relief, even joy. Share in a way that is age-appropriate without burdening them too much with behind the scenes. Why? So you can validate what they intuitively and implicitly sense from you. If you fake it, then your kids will repress their natural, healthy intuition.

5. Remain playful and open about the divorce. The best way we can prevent our kids from feeling shame about the divorce is to maintain an open, honest, even playful conversation about the divorce. That way kids know that it’s not a secret, a taboo, or something they should be ashamed of.

a. Remind them again and again that it’s not because of them. Kids are egocentric in the sense that in their imagination they might blame themselves for the divorce.

b. Initiate conversations about the divorce with your children. Just because they’re not asking you, doesn’t mean they’re not dwelling in it. So especially in the early days of the separation, initiate regular casual conversations with them to see where they are and what’s coming up for them.

6. Live your life happily. The best way you can help your child is to be happy, fulfilled, present, curious, and playful. Create new memories looking forward, not just looking back. There is no perfect list or book on how to help your child through your divorce. The best list is the one you’ll create with your children.

Jennifer Lock Oman, LISW, BCD

Jennifer Lock Oman is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience in the mental health field and an expert in therapy with individuals, couples, and families. Lock Oman is a published writer and graduate-level adjunct instructor. She has taught graduate courses at the University of Iowa and has written a popular, nationally distributed column published by Gannett News Syndicate.

How Do I Help My Child Who is Struggling in a Divorce?
No matter what the age of your child, a key and really central healing comfort parents can offer are to give your child the words to describe what he or she is feeling.  Putting words to our feelings – at any age – helps us to feel some mastery in communicating our experiences, and to feel understood by an important other.
Feelings of loss, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, bewilderment, and fantasies of reunion between the parents are all “normal” for a very difficult
situation for every family member.  To help with naming these feelings there are wonderful books available for children.  By age group, here are three suggestions:
Two Homes  by Clarie Maturel (for ages preschool – 2)
It’s Not Your Fault Kokomo Bear  (for ages 3 – 7)
The List of Things That Will Not Change  (for ages 8 – 12)
To further help your child to express his/her feelings offer the time, space, and comfort for the difficult feelings that emerge.  Listen and validate their feelings as”normal” and hard, while assuring them that over time it won’t always feel this way.  Let them know that no feelings are off-limits…sadness, anger, fear.
Reassure your child that both parents love and care for him/her and that you’re both there when your child needs them.  In this vein, try to cultivate a unified co-parenting relationship with the other parent.  Providing comforting toys, blankets, or clothes at each home furthers the child’s sense that he or she is supported, their feelings are acknowledged and accepted, and that comfort is available.

David Rettew, MD.

David Rettew, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and Medical Director of Lane County Behavioral Health in Eugene, Oregon. The author of the great book “Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows about the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood”  Dr. Rettew has over 100 published journal articles, chapters, and scientific abstracts on various child mental health topics. He is also co-chair of the Prevention and Health Promotion Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He is married and the father of three boys.

How do I help my child who is struggling in a divorce?

Parental divorce and separation is significant stressor on children of all ages.  If done thoughtfully and with their best interest in mind, however, most kids are able to get through the transition without long-lasting negative effects.

The best ways to help children through a divorce will be different for different kids, but research on divorce and children have identified some important factors that predict which children are more likely to adapt well after the transition.

While it seems unfair, the data tell us that one of the strongest predictors of how well a child functions after a major stressor is how well the child was functioning before the stressor. This means that if you have a child who is already struggling with their behavior, a parental divorce might be particularly tough.  For these kids, you may want to have a low threshold for getting some help from a counselor or psychotherapist.  You might also, if possible, consider separation arrangements that are less disruptive to children, such as having the child stay in the same home while the parents take turns living there.

Another common piece of advice that is commonly heard but can be easier said than done is not throwing your child in the middle of your conflict.  Children need parents that they can love and respect.  You may have very legitimate anger towards the other parent, but actively voicing the criticism of your ex to your child only creates a kind of “mutually assured destruction” of both parents that ends up hurting everyone’s relationship. Parents should take care of their own wellness and mental health, but your child should not function as your therapist or outlet to vent your frustrations. You really want to avoid the situation of a child having to defend you when with your ex and having to defend your ex when they are with you.

Research also tells us that while overall parenting quality is always important, it is especially important after parental separation and divorce.  Children who receive a parenting style that is often referred to as authoritative parenting and that combines lots of support, good communication, and warmth with reasonable limits and structuring appear to do better after a divorce. This style can be hard to do for a parent who has just gone through a divorce and who feels like there just isn’t much in the tank to give and is another reason for parents to seek out the support they need during this challenging time.

Another important predictive factor for children who do better after a divorce relates to a lower level of post-separation conflict.  In some cases, high parental conflict can be a reason that parents separate and this separation can be beneficial in reducing the amount of arguing and yelling that kids experience.  In other cases, the separation itself introduces a lot of new conflict and parents should try to minimize their child’s exposure to it

Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS

Kaytee Gillis is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker/psychotherapist, author, and advocate. She has been practicing therapy in the mental health field for over 10 years. Her specialties and focus areas include Domestic violence, family trauma, and intimate partner abuse, especially in the cases of psychological abuse (in some cases known as narcissistic abuse).

How do I help my child who is struggling in a divorce?
Ensure that both parents are able to maintain neutrality. They should do their best not to discuss the other parent in anything other than objective terms “yes, mom will be here at 3”, or “yes, usually dad does make the spaghetti, but tonight I will make it for you”.
Any topics outside of neutrality run the risk of causing harm to the child if they contain any sort of hostility or negative feelings.  While it is impossible to remove the human element from relationships, and therefore probably very difficult to hide pain or feelings of remorse, they should be discussed openly with the child, “yes, mommy is sad today, that is why I am crying. What did you have for lunch today at school”?  Any further discussion will involve the child unfairly and can guilt-trip the child. Children do not know what to do when their parents are upset, and usually, they direct the guilt or other negative feelings inward and blame themselves.
Its imperative for them to know that it is not their fault, that they are still loved and cared for, and that they will not be involved in the back and forth that comes with a divorce proceeding.

Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W.

Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., is the author of 11 books, has also published over 300 magazine and journal articles, and has contributed several book chapters, including Favorite Counseling Techniques: 55 Masters Share Their Secrets, which cited him among the top 100 therapists in the country.

How do I help my child who is struggling in a divorce?

There are a couple of things that are important to do:
Sit down with your children and let them know how their lives are going to change — weekends with one parent, staying at the same school, different pick-ups, etc. This is what kids often want to know most.
Make sure you clearly say that this is not their fault, not about them, but adult problems — the younger the child, the easier it is for them to blame themselves in some way.
Check-in with your child regularly (while riding in a car is often good). don’t be afraid to ask hard questions — are you feeling sad, missing mom, having a hard sleeping at a different place. Kids only know what it is okay to talk about based on what you bring up and ask about. And if they open up, listen, give them space to talk.
Don’t be afraid to share your emotions but don’t dump them on your child. If you are having a hard day, feeling sad, it’s okay to say it — it gives the child permission to do the same. but then say you are going to do x to take care of yourself. What you don’t want your child to do is worry or worse feel she needs to do something to take care of you.
Keep the same routines even between households as much as possible.
Let teachers, important others know about family changes so they can be on the lookout for any changes in emotions/behaviors.
Don’t make the oldest child a surrogate parent or partner — don’t want them to suddenly be over-responsible nor be your confidant — they not only lose their childhood, but they can also become entitled.
Try to have 1:1 time with each of your children every day even if it is for 15 minutes.
Coordinate and communicate as best you can with your ex.
Expect some regression or testing in the beginning stages of the divorce
Seek professional support for you or your children if you or they are struggling.

Shari Botwin, LCSW

Author for Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, “Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing.” Paperback is available here
Audiobook available at
How do I help my child who is struggling with divorce?
Sit down and talk with your child together when you break the news about the divorce. Reassure your child that your decision to separate is not “your fault. Children are more black and white about complex problems because they are not equipped cognitively to process what divorce means.
Be calm and patient as your child explores his/her feelings about the family breaking up. Provide them with a detailed plan of how childcare will be split up. Give your child permission to express his/her feelings. For example, let them show their sadness or anger, or grief.
For children, divorce can feel like a death. Keep your feelings separate from your child’s emotions. Do not try to fix it. Do not talk badly about each other with your child. Remind your child that your love for them has not changed.
Check-in with your child periodically, not just the first week or month after the divorce. Holidays and birthdays can be especially difficult for children that come from broken homes. Ask your child what each parent can do to support him/her during these challenging times.
If your child is acting out at home or in school, do not be afraid to seek counseling. Children are protective of their parents, and as a result, they may stuff their most uncomfortable emotions. A family therapist or group environment for children of divorce can facilitate them to find words and work through emotions they may not want to share with their parents. Divorce is often more difficult for the child a family because in most cases they would not want their family to be separated.

Asha Shajahan, MD, MHSA

PT blog A Code of Living

Asha Shajahan is a board-certified family physician, an assistant professor in the department of family medicine and biomedical sciences at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.

How do I help my child who is struggling with divorce?

Children may not always want to talk about divorce.  They may internalize their feelings.  Many avoid changing routines and may want to spend more time with friends.  Be flexible with your child.  Let them know you are always available to talk.  Discuss with your child that you want to know how they are doing with the changes in the household.  Set up a system of thumbs up for good, thumbs sideways- ok, thumbs down for no good.
This doesn’t force your child to talk, yet, the signals can be a way to support each other and open up further discussion.  In addition, a social media support group is always helpful. Lastly, individual counseling is key to processing emotions.

Fern Schumer Chapman

Fern Schumer Chapman is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Forbes magazine. Her work also has appeared in the Washington PostUS News & World ReportFortune, and The Wall Street Journal. The Author of the book Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation” considers the importance of sibling support during the divorce process.

By promoting strong sibling relationships, parents can help to buffer, protect, and mitigate their children from some of the most harmful effects of divorce, according to a study by H. R. Riggio in 2001.

Encourage your children to lean into their sibling relationships.

The great value of the sibling relationship is under-recognized and under-examined. The research that does exist shows that, typically, children experience anxiety, depression, and anger immediately following a divorce, however, strong sibling relationships can help to mitigate some of these feelings. Sisters and brothers can derive strength and support from each other during divorce through their consistent, everyday involvement and interactions.

Siblings typically spend more time together than with anyone else; for the fortunate, those relationships may continue for eighty years, outlasting most friendships, marriages, and even relationships with parents. In childhood, brothers and sisters are our first playmates, instilling in one another necessary social qualities—tolerance, generosity, loyalty—that eventually affect relationships with friends, colleagues, and lovers.

Studies show the importance of sibling relationships over a life:

Adolescents who perceived that their siblings validated their beliefs and feelings reported higher levels of self‐esteem.

Sibling support and a strong sibling relationship are correlated with better academic performance.

For children at risk of poverty, family discord, parental mental illness, or divorce, having an emotionally stable person, like an older sibling, improved their chances of becoming a well‐adjusted adults.

Sibling support and closeness were associated with less loneliness, lower levels of depression, and greater satisfaction later in life.

Divorcing parents should be careful not to undermine their children’s adjustment to their new reality by showing favoritism, abandoning their children, or disrupting their communication. These actions also can negatively affect the sibling relationship.


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