Helping your children deal with their emotions

Children will react in different ways to the divorce. Some will be angry, hurt or upset, some may show no reaction at all. In families where there has been a great deal of fighting between parents, children may even feel relieved. They need to know that this is normal. Below we look at the common emotions children might experience and how you can help support them through this time. 

Dealing with children's anger about divorce

When children are angry they may: 

  • behave badly, test limits or break rules
  • tell you ‘I hate you‘ or become disrespectful
  • blame one or both of you for the situation
  • throw temper tantrums or display other destructive behaviours, such as biting, hitting, fighting and kicking (this can be especially true for younger children)
  • have frequent emotional outbursts
  • withdraw from the family or emotionally shut down
  • act up or play truant from school
  • engage in risky or dangerous behaviours (teens and pre-adolescents).

What you can do

When children are feeling angry it is important to provide them with love and understanding as well as discipline. If you are having problems with how your children are handling their anger, try the following:

  • Schedule a time to talk to your child about the situation.
  • Let them know you understand this is a difficult time for them and give them a chance to share how they feel.
  • Tell them while it is okay to feel angry, how they are handling their feelings is not.
  • Clearly identify which behaviours are not acceptable (for example, hitting, being disrespectful and breaking things).
  • Help your children to write down at least three to five healthy, appropriate ways they can express their anger. Good examples are exercising, hitting or screaming into a pillow, keeping a journal or diary, stepping away from the situation, or talking to someone you trust
  • Speak to their school and let them know what is going on at home. They may be able to offer support or counselling. 
  • Let your child know what will happen if they choose an inappropriate way of handling their anger. Make sure the consequence is both appropriate for their age and enforceable. For example, with a younger child you might say: ’When you speak disrespectfully, you will have a time out and go to bed early.’ For a teenager, you might consider withdrawing a privilege such as taking away a mobile phone or not allowing them to watch television or play video games.

If these strategies don’t help, you may want to ask your GP to refer your child to the local Child and Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

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Sadness and depression in children during divorce

It is normal for children to feel sad during this period. For most children, these feelings will get better over time. As with anger, it is important for you to help your child find some healthy and acceptable ways to deal with the sadness.

However, if you find that the sadness is persistent or becomes worse, it could be a sign of depression and you should seek professional help by consulting your GP.

Signs of depression in children include:

  • change in academic performance at school
  • withdrawing from family and friends
  • inability to concentrate
  • being agitated or irritable
  • not getting pleasure from activities they used to enjoy
  • persistently sad throughout the day
  • trouble sleeping at night
  • feeling tired or lacking energy
  • easily upset and tearful
  • saying things like ‘I wish I was never born‘, or ‘Maybe life would be better without me around’.

What you can do

While it is hard to see your child upset or hurt, it is important for them to have an opportunity to feel the sadness. Try to avoid discounting, changing or covering up their feelings by saying things like ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘It will all be okay’.

Some parents make the mistake of trying to indulge their children with presents or activities as a way of taking their mind off the sadness. Usually, this is only a temporary cure. Instead, let your children know they have a right to feel sad about what has happened in the family. 

Speak to the school and let them know what is happening. The school may have counselling services or other sources of support for your children.

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When your children want you to get back together

Children may think they have the ability to bring you back together.

When children are trying to save the family they might:

  • promise to be good, behave better or be 'perfect children' 
  • develop physical symptoms (for example, stomach or headache) or an emergency situation so that you have to care for them together
  • create events or reasons for you and your ex to have contact
  • become a discipline problem at school or home so that you and your ex have a common cause.

It’s very important for your children to know that they cannot fix or change what has happened in the family. When parents split up, children often mistakenly believe they are responsible. Their sense of guilt usually increases when they are exposed to their parents arguing and fighting.

From a child’s perspective, if you are having a row about them, they will naturally feel they are to blame. So minimise conflict whenever possible and let your children know that the divorce or separation is not their fault. You may need to tell them this more than once.

In the early stages, try to keep life predictable and consistent for your children. Try to avoid making significant changes and maintain regular routines and normal activities as much as possible. Make sure they get plenty of rest, eat regularly, exercise and have access to supportive family and friends.