Common Considerations for Children Coping with Divorce

Toddler in car seat in back of carIn my work with couples who are learning how to parent their children together after ending their marriage/relationship, we spend a good deal of time talking about how the ending of their relationship affects their children, what the internal experience of a child could be, and how the child manages their parents’ conflict.

There are no descriptions that accurately describe what this is like for every child. We often see differences even between two children from the same family. We can discuss some of the possible scenarios to give you a flavor of what your children might be experiencing.

It is often the case that children have their first experience of witnessing love ending when their parents divorce. You may have noticed that a child’s experience may be narcissistic. In other words, they see the world only as it is influenced by them (that happened because of me). When viewing the changes in their parents, they could have the thought at an unconscious or conscious level that if my parents can stop loving each other, they can also stop loving me. This thought is difficult for parents to take in because they do not feel they love their children any less because of the ending of the marriage. And the perception of the child may have no relationship to their actual experience.

It is possible that the fear of losing the love of a parent could explain times when children will tell each parent something different. For instance, Johnny may tell Mom he wants to be on the soccer team and tell Dad that he would rather play baseball. When the parents talk about how to decide what sport Johnny will play, they each believe they have the straight scoop about what Johnny wants to do. They find out they have different information. How can this be? Why would Johnny tell me one thing and you something else? Is he lying? Is he deliberately creating trouble? Is he undecided?

One of the possibilities is that Johnny wants to tell the parent what he believes the parent wants to hear and in that moment also believes it is what he wants as well. Most often these statements are not deliberate lies or attempts to create mayhem between parents already experiencing conflict. He wants to protect the love of that parent and do nothing that will risk it ending as it did toward the other parent. He may not be consciously aware of this as a course of action.

Another aspect of a child’s experience is in the child’s need to attend to his or her feelings of split loyalties. Children have a healthy fear of being pulled into the dysfunctionality of their parents. Young children often want to be caretakers of the parent who is perceived as weaker. Children are strongly pulled to who they perceive to be the underdog and can suffer feelings of guilt when they make that choice. They might develop angry feelings towards the perceived stronger parent as a way of warding off those guilt feelings. For some children, they will align with the perceived stronger parent in an effort to not have to face weakness in themselves. One way or the other, the issue of loyalty can create an internal schism that looks for an external expression.

In the situations described, the best approach to helping children not be in the position of either offering disparate information or battling loyalties is for the parents to work at having a relationship with each other that allows the children to feel the collaboration on their behalf. When children know their parents talk with each other, make decisions together, and are not arguing with each other over anything to do with them, it reduces stress and the conscious or unconscious need to repair their internal struggles.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD, therapist in San Ramon, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Townshend


    April 17th, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    Children of divorce can be resilient as long as the parents give them a strong model to follow. They can’t be acting all stupid and acting like kids. They still have to be grown ups in the situation even when it feels like the worst thing in the world is happening to them. Think of how the kids feel and the things that they are seeing and hearing. They learn how to behave and how to cope by looking at you. Be that role model that they need you to be.

  • linds


    April 17th, 2012 at 4:46 PM

    I hate it when I seeing parents make the kids take sides.
    Children should not have to feel like they have to choose one parent over the other.
    They should only be made to feel that the parents’ love is unconditional and that the love for them will always be there.

  • JoEllen


    April 18th, 2012 at 4:08 AM

    I don’t like to see anyone have to go through a divorce, I truly don’t. But we have to think about this a little clearly. What’s better for the children, having them live through a marriage that the parents do not want to be a part of anymore with fussing and fighting and genuinely dysfunctional behavior all of the time? Or would we rather them live with the situation where yes, there is a divorce but the parents are able to hadle it it amicably and with peace and ultimately give the children a safer and more comforting environment in which to grow up? I know which one I would choose, and if you look at the issue without bias, then I think that I know what most of us would choose for our children and grandchildren. Obviously divorce is not always the ebst answer, but there are some cases where it truly is and I think that we need to keep that in mind.

  • lance


    April 18th, 2012 at 12:48 PM

    Why on earth do we keep ending up with the wrong people and creating a home life that is unacceptable for the resulting children? They are the ones who are going to hurt the most and we never really give that too much thought.

  • Tessa


    April 19th, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    So sad that so many of our children are having to grow up as children of divorce.
    They become torn between parents who think so much of themselves and their own needs that the kids end up being pulled in two completely different directions and that it so unfair to them.

  • heath


    April 19th, 2012 at 4:52 PM

    As a child of divorce myself I will say that my parents did divorce right. they never made us feel like we had to choose, they never made us feel disloyal, and they would actually speak to each other cordially when we were around. There was never any of that fear that we could not talk about mom with our dad and vice versa. And we all turned out pretty okay.

  • Karen Thompson

    Karen Thompson

    April 19th, 2012 at 10:51 PM

    Divorce is hard on everyone involved. No matter how, civil the parents are…the children come away with hurt, lack of trust, and their lives changed.
    Being a child of divorce and seeing my children deal with our divorce…parents do have a profound effect on the outcome of their children’s well-being. Help your children through the next steps of adjusting to this new life. Reach out to family, friends, and professional help if needed. Don’t assume things will get better on their own. They rarely do.

  • Matt F

    Matt F

    April 19th, 2012 at 11:11 PM

    My parents divorced when i was just eight but they never let me feel alone. Although I lived with my mum,dad saw us quite often and was always there when i needed help or advice as a young man.

    They really did everything for me although they had separated. But I can imagine what happens in homes wherein the parents are divorced and are bitter to each other. That would put tremendous pressure on the child(ren) and could well lead to problems for everybody.

  • Anonymous


    January 8th, 2017 at 3:02 PM

    I am currently living with my grandparents and have been for 11 years. I want to live with my mom but I have to go to court for that. I have no idea what to do, or how to approach the situation with my grandparents. I have already talked to my mom about it and she told me to look it up. I’m looking it up but I need some advice/tips. Could someone please help?

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