Kids and Divorce or Separation: 9 Ways to Make the Difference

By Karen Young

A divorce or separation is hard enough but as any parent knows, it’s also the time when your kids need you more than ever to steady the ground for them. You’ll have it in you to do this, but it’s likely to take everything you’ve got, given that you’ll be having enough trouble steadying the ground for yourself. Divorce is awful for everyone – but that’s why parents are heroic. They have a way of finding the strength to push with everything they have to make things right for their kids, when it feels as though there’s just nothing left to push with at all.

Kids are resilient, but resilient doesn’t mean bullet-proof. Just like resilient grown-ups, kids can be brought to their knees by a badly managed divorce. When they have adults in their lives who love them and are watching out for them, they’ll be okay, but first they’ll be confused, scared, angry and broken-hearted. How long they stay that way depends entirely on how their parents deal with it. Kids will cope with the day to day changes. Any emotional wreckage they're drawn into will fall them.

That doesn't mean a separation shouldn't go ahead. It certainly doesn’t mean that.
When a relationship has run its course, chances are the kids will feel the tension or perhaps the fading of one or both of you - and that's not good for anyone.

There’s so much courage is knowing when to let go of something that isn’t working, and there may come a time when your kids will look to you to find the courage you’ve shown during this time to do something hard themselves.

Perhaps the decision to separate is out of your hands, but as hard as it is to hold on through the wreckage, you can get through and bring your kids safely and soundly through the other side. Here are some things you can do to make a difference:

1. Minimise what you give them to deal with.

There will be a lot of changes, and that’s okay, but whatever parts of their life you can keep the same, keep them the same, at least in the early days. Routines, friends, schools, pets, time with grandparents or other important people, the special things they’re used to doing separately with each parent - whatever you can do to maximise the familiar within the unfamiliar will be worth it and will make a difference.

2. Use anyone for support, but don’t use them. 

Kids need to know you’re the lamplight, the ladder and the leaning post for them and that you’re stable - even if you aren’t, which for periods you won’t be. You're human and you’ll want to cry, complain and fall part - so go for it, it’s important that you do - just don’t do it in front of them.

3. If you've met someone else you want to be with, leave your relationship first. 

It happens and it's not for anyone else to judge who you fall in love with and the timing of that. What you will be judged on is the way you treat the person you’re with on the way out. Be respectful and leave the old relationship before starting a new one. Breathing space between two relationships is so important. When you have kids together, you’ll be co-parents for life. This will go a lot more smoothly if you can minimise reasons for conflict, and nothing will fire up conflict more than starting a relationship while you’re still in one, or while the other person you're still with has every reason to believe in and expect your loyalty. Respect your ex on the way out. It’s important for all of you.

4. Love your kids more than you want to hate your partner. 

Out of everything, this is the most important. Say what you want about your partner but never ever say it in front of the kids. Similarly, don't play games by getting at your partner by withholding the kids. Two of the biggest ways that exes bully exes is through visitation and speaking badly about the other parent in front of the kids. Just don’t do it - for your own sake and most importantly for the sake of your children. You will pay the price. Your kids will be watching everything you do.

There's an abundance of research showing the devastating effects on children when one parent undermines the bond between the child and the other parent. The research also clearly shows how parents who denigrate the other or act to undermine the relationship between the child and the other parent have less close relationships with their children than parents who don't do this. Imagine what it would be like for you if somebody said things to you about your kids. Then imagine how you would feel if you weren't able to tell them to stop. Whatever you say or do to their other parent, you may as well be doing to your kids. They'll feel it just as surely as if you were. You probably would have fought with warrior daring once to protect your now-ex from slap talk. Your kids will feel the same. You can find another partner. They only have one mum and one dad. Don't take that person away. Undermine their relationship and you will pay a hefty price. So will your kids.

5. If you're the parent who is struggling to hold things together in the face of a trash-talking, interfering ex, hold steady.

Kids don't stay kids forever and they will see the truth one day. I know it doesn't feel like it when you're going through it but the parent who continues to love their children enough to respect their relationship with the other parent will come out closer to their children than the other parent. Not that it's a competition, but it is a fact. Treating the other parent with respect is one of the most loving things you can do for your kids. If it’s with an ex who is working hard to undermine you, it’s also one of the bravest and strongest things you’ll do for them. Your kids will realise this one day.

6. Give your kids every reason to feel that they are completely free to love the other parent.

One of the worst things you can do to your kids is to put them in a position where they have any reason to feel as though you are making them choose between you and your ex. It’s called a loyalty bind – where they have to reject or not like one parent (or pretend to do this) to show loyalty to the other. Kids might tend towards this anyway, which is why it’s so important to expressly let them know that you completely support their relationship with the other parent. This is, of course, provided that the other parent is a safe and loving parent – and be honest about this – you won’t be fooling anyone if you twist the truth even just a little.

7. ‘But what about me?’ 

For your kids, this is the question that will be forefront of their minds. When their world is turned upside down they’ll need a ton of reassurance that they’ll be okay. As soon as you can, have the plan worked out and explain to them how things will work. Let them know where they’ll be living, who they’ll be living with and what the separation means for their relationship with the each parent. They need to know that they’ll be okay, you’ll be okay, their other parent will be okay and most importantly, that they’ll still have a relationship with both of you.

8. Be patient with your ex if they're struggling to be without you.

However you feel about each other now, you’ve shared a life together and had children together. It’s completely understandable that at least one of you, perhaps both of you, will at some point feel on the brink. Remember that your children are directly impacted by the well being of both their parents. If you're ex-partner is struggling, be empathic and compassionate. That doesn't mean you have to be the target of nonsense behaviour – bullying, hysterics, manipulations – you don’t have to accept any of that. But if you were the one who left, remember the person who is driving you crazy with their lack of reasonable behavior is devastated to have lost you. Be patient until they find their way out of it.

9. Divorce or separation is not a failure.

People come into our lives to teach us or to learn from us. That doesn't mean the learnings take a lifetime to unfold. If at some point, the growing stopped being together and started being apart, that does not mean your relationship wasn't beautiful, important or exactly where you needed to be when you were in it. What it means is that it has given you all it needed to. Don't stay for longer than you have to just because once upon a time, a long time ago, you said you would. If you're the one holding on, let go - you deserve more than to be with someone who wants to be somewhere else.

And finally ...

There's no reason kids won't come through the other side of a separation safely and soundly, but this depends on how their parents deal with the fallout. Claiming that it all hinges on this one thing is not overplaying it by any means. The children will adjust eventually, provided the adults don't draw them into a dirty heaving mess.

In the stormy sea of a separation, the only way through is straight through the middle. Nothing will make it easy or leave you keen to repeat the experience, but there are things that will make navigating through the rough waters easier.

Stabilising the ground while your falling on your knees towards it is a heroic effort. But that's what parents are aren't they. Heroes.

(Image Credit: Shutterstock)


Karen is a psychologist and the founder of, where the science of psychology meets the art of being human.