Helping children with their emotions when going through divorce

When parents separate or get divorced, making sure their children are coping well is one of their most important roles.


Just like adults, children react differently to divorce. Children can often experience feelings of loss, anger, confusion, and anxiety. They may start to withdraw or act out either at home, school or both. They may even feel as if they have done something to cause the divorce. All of these reactions are completely normal, but with your support they should be able to successfully navigate their way through the myriad of emotions.

Finding support through these difficult times is essential for both you and your child’s well being. For children, school can be a good starting point even if it’s just letting the teachers know what is going on so they can look out for any behavioural problems.

Divorce can create fundamental changes in routine which can amplify the anxiety a child may be feeling. Anxiety is eased when expectations and reassurance are provided by creating a consistent, predictable routine. Some children worry about what their new living arrangements may entail, so communicating where they will be for certain days or how many nights they will have in each home can provide comfort. Some children may benefit from a calendar on the wall to show them where they will be each day.

Modelling calm as much as possible throughout can help your children through the transition. By doing so will help them feel secure, and can also help alleviate anxieties. Although you must always be truthful, insulating them from any conflict or negatively is extremely important. Sometimes, parents are not on the same page but being able to show a united front for the benefit of the children and trying to maintain a degree of normalcy at home and extracurricular activities can help.

Conflicts can often arise when you start working out how to co-parent effectively, and compromises need to be made. If it really isn’t possible to talk civilly to your ex partner and they are unwilling to co-operate, do your best to control what you can in your own home, like setting routines and expectations.

Ensure the children understand that the divorce is not their fault. It may be challenging, but try not to convey derogatory sentiments about your ex partner in front of your children. Children need to know that they still have both of you and you both are there for them, albeit living in different homes and remember you can’t be the best for your children if you are not taking care of yourself, so don’t forget it is OK to ask for and accept help.

Emotions often run high during divorce and this time of transition for you and your child will be different, but you will all be figuring out how to manage the loss. It is not unusual for this time to follow a similar pattern of the grief process. 

Respecting your own and your child’s, emotions is paramount. Try to avoid telling your child ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’. For example: 'Stop crying', 'don’t get upset' or 'don’t be sad'. Expression of emotions are a healthy way of conveying a feeling and by telling them ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ may send the message they they shouldn’t be feeling them.

Imagine, when confiding in your friend, rather than providing comfort, they told you to stop crying or don’t be sad, you probably wouldn’t want to confide in them again. This is what it feels like when your child hears those words. Their true emotions are as real to them as yours are to you, even if what they are crying about doesn’t seem to make sense. It is important to allow them to have a safe space with you when they need to sort through big feelings. By telling them ‘don’t’ limits what they think they can express. All emotions perform a function, anger, joy, sadness, and fear. By suppressing one and praising another, children learn that certain emotions are preferred, and try to bury or hide the others.

To support children’s emotions, it is best to respect, acknowledge and validate them by letting them know that any emotions they have are OK. Every parent’s instinct is to try to protect his or her child from things that are scary or painful, but change is scary and divorce is painful. Rather than rushing in and trying to solve their pain, try to take a step back and listen, this allows your child to feel heard and feel that their opinion matters. Additionally it also lets them know that all emotions are allowed and they aren’t a problem to be solved.

You may find yourself trying to cheer them up if they seem sad, but this only puts pressure on them to feel a way that they don’t. Even if it upsets you try your best to listen to how they are feeling. It's important to validate their emotions this requires careful listening and empathising. For example, if your child tells you that they are sad, instead of looking for a way to fix it, try validating the emotion by letting them know you understand why they might feel that way and ask them to tell you more about it.

Some children worry that they might upset you if they tell you how you how they are feeling, but it's not down to the child to comfort or make their parent feel better. Make it clear that you are paying attention to what your child has to say. To allow your child to talk openly about how they are feeling without worrying about making you feel bad, try to not unintentionally send the message that you will be upset by anything they may say. It is important for you to ensure you are managing your own emotions by getting the support you need to deal with how you feel, how your child feels and how that impacts you.

Remember, you can best support your child if you are feeling supported, too. This is something I help clients with, so if you would like to learn more about how we can work together, please get in touch by clicking the ‘email me’ button below. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Wilmslow SK9 & Alderley Edge SK9
Written by Tracey Wetnall, MBACP Integrative Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Wilmslow SK9 & Alderley Edge SK9

Tracey is a psychotherapist and registered member of the BACP, she is based in Wilmslow, Cheshire for face to face counselling but also works with clients across the UK via a safe secure video link. Tracey has a passion for helping families, individuals and couples navigate their way to a successful and healthy separation.

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