Divorce and separation is not only difficult for the couple, but also for their children as well. As with any loss (in this case, changes to the family unit), divorce and separation can impact children’s mental health. However, there are ways to help your children cope with this and of course, ways to spot early signs if they are not coping.
We’ve shared our top tips to help your children’s mental health after divorce or separation and how to identify if you might need extra help.
How does divorce impact a child's mental health?
For children, the experience of their parent's divorce or separation might entail several forms of loss, the most significant being, the changing dynamic of their parent's relationship and of the wider family unit. Further losses might involve one parent moving out of the family home, or the whole family moving out and selling the family home, spending less time with one parent, moving school and losing touch with friends etc.
Inevitably, your child might display signs of grief as a result of loss, and other emotions that may impact their mental health. Your child might display the following, as a consequence of your separation:
Whilst many of these are a natural reaction to a significant loss and usually pass with time and support, there are situations where a child may need additional help or even intervention if they are not coping or if these behaviours extend over a longer period of time.
At what age is a child most affected by divorce?
Whilst recent research conducted by UCL has indicated that children are most affected by their parent's separation between the ages of seven and fourteen, a child can be affected by divorce or separation at any age. According to the research children whose parents separated during this period (where the child was aged between seven and fourteen) saw a ‘16 per cent increase in emotional problems’ (UCL, 2019). However, there are many factors that might impact this, most significantly, the nature of the parent's separation or their relationship with each other prior to separating.
For example, research also shows that couples who consistently argue in front of, or in earshot of their children, are likely to negatively impact their children’s mental health, particularly if the child feels they are responsible for the argument (Grych et. al., 2003).
There is obviously never a perfect time to separate when it comes to how your children will cope, however, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Are you both able to be the best parents you can possibly be, or is your relationship with each other impacting your children? Furthermore, often the manner of your separation carries the most impetus as to whether your child is able to cope moving forwards.
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Is it better to stay together for a child?
There is no correct answer to this question. Living in an unhealthy relationship that is negatively impacting your own well-being is not conducive to being the best parent that you can be. Equally, it’s important for your child to be in a stable family where they feel loved and supported. It is possible to create the latter after separation, however, it takes work. Whilst no one can make this decision for you, it’s important to understand the implications separating might have on your children, as well as the implications of staying in an unhappy marriage.
The first thing to ask yourself is; are you sure your relationship is over? There is a difference between a marriage or relationship that needs work, and a marriage or relationship that has broken down completely. If you do choose to end your marriage or separate from your partner, be on the same page about telling your children. Choose an appropriate time and place and ensure they know they are still loved and that you will both still be there for them.
It’s important to understand that if you separate, there might be a residual loyalty conflict for your child. Do not fall into the trap of using your child as a pawn to ‘one-up’ each other. Be supportive of your co-parent to avoid your child feeling like they’re in the middle or have to choose between you both. You may have come across the term parental alienation which represents an extreme form of this and should be avoided at all costs.
Tip: Ensure your child feels that they can have a good time at both your and your co-parent's house and that they can come back to the other and share this with you, without feeling guilt or as though they might be upsetting the other parent.
How can you help your children’s mental health during separation or divorce?
The most important thing you can do for your child is to make sure they feel loved, supported and understood by you both. It’s natural for them to experience; sadness, greif, anxiety, guilt etc. after your separation and you can help them by ensuring they know that its okay to feel this way.
Remember, you are their role model. Support them through these more challenging emotions by giving them the vocabulary to verbalise how they feel so you and others can help them better.
Tips to help your child’s mental health during divorce or separation
Tip one: Find ways to communicate with your child
Every child is different, and it’s important to find ways to communicate with them in relation to their age. For some, expressing their emotions may be easier through activities or play rather than being asked point-blank how they feel. Help them find the words to express how they feel so they can articulate this to you. Give them forums to talk freely, so there is an open dialogue between you, your co-parent and them. You might find asking general questions is a good way to find out how your child actually feels, such as; you’re a little quiet today…?
Whilst it’s important to give your children avenues to communicate and vocabulary to explain how they are feeling, don’t overshare with them. Keep normal boundaries in place, ie. your child doesn’t need to know if you’re really angry, disappointed or annoyed with their other parent. Use your friends, family and support networks to lean on rather than your children.
Tip two: Be the best role model you can be
Model expressing your own feelings in a way your children will understand in relation to their age. By showing that you also experience emotions and how you deal with those emotions, your children should pick up on coping strategies and also know that it’s okay to feel that way.
‘I was feeling a bit sad today and do you know what I really did to make myself feel better, I…’
Remember children can cope if they see you coping. They know that if you can get through this, then they can. Support your co-parent - if your co-parent is openly going through an emotion, such as ‘sadness’ in front of the children, don’t roll your eyes or ignore them. Help and support them, as your children will feed off of this behaviour.
Tip three: Utilise your children’s school
You might find it useful to tell your childrens school, or a trusted and appropriate adult in the school about your separation. They will be able to spot potential warning signs, or simply understand your child’s behavour better. This is obviously and individual decision, and it’s also up to you, whether you want to include your children in this decision. Through telling the school about your divorce of separation, they can then understand your child better, for example, bad behavour can be understood as a sign of distress rather than disobedience and can be responded to with empathy and compassion.
Ultimately, try to establish a routine, and keep as much normality as possible. Don’t change your behaviour and parenting based on your separation, just tweak it where necessary. By establsing a routine, and keeping a level of consistency where possible, this should help your children cope in a time of transition and upheaval.
Think about your arrangement from the perspective of your child. What will it look and feel like to them living the agreement out on a day to day basis? For example, consistency so that when they are at school they know who will be picking them up based on the day of the week, or handovers, are they going to feel tension, or awkward - limit conversation and keep it positive, ensure that you have arrangements in place to discuss tricky matters (such as finances) away from the children - some parents will meet for a coffee once a month while the child is at school to talk these things through, others may use the co-parenting app.
Red flags that your child is not coping with your divorce or separation:
Parents know their children best, and only they will know if their child is being particularly ‘off’ or if there is something wrong. The school can also be helpful in determining this, but if you’re ever unsure, reach out and ask for help. Here are some signs to look out for:
- Understand when the natural reactions of your child (sadness, grief, anxiety etc.) turn into something more concerning (ie. over a prolonged period).
- Look out for mood swings, ‘bad’ behaviour, issues with eating, problems sleeping etc.
- Issues at school (disobedience, affecting their grades, losing friendships etc)
If you’re worried, speak to their school, your GP or a mental health practitioner.