Is Your Child Struggling With Your Divorce?

Separation and divorce are not easy on anyone. Feelings of stress may be present long before the decision to separate. Even though it may be a relief once parents decide to part ways, they experience a whole new set of stressors because of it. Both children and parents can struggle significantly during the transition phase. Parents may have difficulty managing their own emotions and high levels of stress associated with the separation. It is not uncommon to worry about providing enough support for children who have been innocently impacted. If you may wonder if you are doing everything “right” in protecting your children from the effects of the separated family this post will be of interest.

What Parents Go Through With Divorce

Even though parents decide to part ways, they may still experience grief at the loss of a family unit. The decision to separate also causes many parents to feel guilty for dissolving the familiar family dynamic. In some cases, one parent may feel betrayed or blindsided by the separation and struggle with extreme anger at the former spouse. Additionally, there is always increased stress associated with ending the family unit. The division of everything, including time with children is a painful process. This increased stress, potential feelings of grief, guilt, and anger all contribute to concern that the capacity to help children through the process is just not enough. In particular, many parents worry that their children will be negatively affected by separation.

How a Cooperative Separation/Divorce Can Still Affect Children

Although children fare best when the separation is peaceful and cooperative, it would be naive to assume that the children will not experience any negative effects. Children may still develop painful and uncomfortable feelings about the new family dynamic. No matter what parents do, children will go through a grieving period at the loss of their familiar family unit, just like many parents do.

  • Children will miss the parent they are not with. 

Also, transitions between homes can be bittersweet. Children are happy when reunited with a parent that they have missed, but sad to be leaving the other parent. Transition times need extra care and empathy. Never take this sadness personally. Your child is happy to see the parent they have been away from. If this is a serious concern, there are ways to help. For one, if the parenting schedule is too long for a young child to be away from either parent, this can be adjusted to make time between exchanges more frequent. Alternatively, a mid-custodial outing with the other parent might help the child feel connected. These would not have to be formal and can be implemented on an “as needed” basis.

  • Children may “blame” themselves for the separation

Additionally, it is common and normal for a child to feel responsible for the separation and feel misplaced guilt. Ironically, this may be the case if parents do a really good job of shielding their children from their disagreements. If a child can find no reason for the separation, the only way they can make sense of the situation is to blame themselves.

Parents need to assure children consistently by both parents that the child did nothing to influence the decision.  The parents made the decision to separate completely because of issues between the two of them. The details of this separation may be “grown-up” or adult issues. However general causes, such as Mom and Dad just not getting along, can help to convince a child that they are not to blame. Never bad-mouth the other parent or share details of betrayal because the child will feel sympathetic to one parent and this encourages the child to take sides.

When children struggle with these issues, parents may notice general emotional dysregulation, emotional withdrawal, anger, or sadness. These are normal responses and parents can typically soothe children with understanding, care, and attention.    

 If the separation is combative – not cooperative

Studies support that when parents are combative in separation, children are always negatively impacted. It is all too easy to use children as weapons to hurt the other parent. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to shield children if arguments are frequent and heated, even if they are not face-to-face. Emotions are contagious and the child does not have to be present to intuitively pick up when a parent is in pain

Following are some typical problematic behaviours guaranteed to negatively affect your child.

  • Badmouthing an Ex will confuse and potentially shameful feelings.

In the early part of a break up when parents are in shock, it is not unusual to have strong negative feelings (sadness, anger, bitterness, etc.) and misguidedly share them with the children. However, most parents recognize quickly that this behaviour is not okay and apologize for the mistake. Adding positive comments about the other parent is also helpful to repair the mistake. If the badmouthing continues, it is very confusing for a child. The child, who intrinsically loves both parents, can feel shameful and become secretive about loving that parent. Alternatively, a child may feel pressure to “take sides” and this pressure is extremely damaging to the child. Parents need to provide positive comments about the child’s other parent to ensure the child that he/she can love them.

  • Encouraging your child to be your ally or confiding too much will pressure a child to pick sides.

Parents sometimes tell children far too much about their divorce, court, money, and how custody negotiations are going, especially if the parent feels unfairly treated. This is not appropriate information for children to carry at any age. When parents share details about the separation with the child, the parent is using the child as a confidant (ally) and this new dynamic is problematic. If the parent overshares in a moment of frustration, then admitting your mistake and apologizing can repair the damage. Overall, the details of your separation are between you and your ex. Revealing this information to your children can encourage them to “pick sides” and cause an internal loyalty conflict. If you need to confide in someone, choose a trusted adult, or a counsellor.

  • Limiting or interfering in contact is emotionally and psychologically damaging.

When a parent is resentful and angry, withdrawing or limiting contact between a child and their other parent may seem like the ultimate revenge.  It will hurt the ex, but more importantly, the child cannot escape being affected. Children need adequate contact with both parents. Regardless of any negative feelings between parents, both are important figures in the child’s life. This behaviour is not putting a child’s best interests as a priority; revenge and hurting the other parent is the priority. Children need support and love from both parents to help manage the upheaval of their lives.

  • Asking your child to “spy” on your ex. causes guilt and shame. Your child is in a child a “no-win” situation.

Grilling a child about the other parent is unhealthy.  This is an impossible position for a child. They will feel that they are betraying the other parent when they answer honestly or feel guilty if they don’t reveal all of the facts.  Either way, it is a very unfair way to take advantage of the fact that a child is spending time with the other parent.  The child will be set up to have a loyalty conflict and is in a “no-win” situation.  Either the child betrays one parent by being truthful, or the other by refusing to divulge any information or lie. Putting a child in the middle of an adult dispute this way is very psychologically damaging.

  • Withdrawing love and affection or threatening to, causes an insecure attachment, and abandonment fears. 

The last and perhaps most damaging destructive behaviours that some parents engage in, is to tell their children that if they don’t agree with what they say, or do what they ask, it is clear that the child does not love the parent enough. Because of this, the parent either threatens to or withdraws their demonstration of love and affection.  This psychological abandonment of a parent is devastating to a child that has already lost so much because of the initial separation.  Parents need to assure children that both parents love unconditionally.  


When parents decide to separate, it is difficult for everyone involved. Parents can do a lot to make this process easier for their children, or engage in warfare and make a child’s life more difficult. When parents put their children’s best interest in the forefront, rather than their own, children fare much better. If the focus of a parent is to hurt their ex, the children are the ones who experience negative psychological repercussions.

If you need help navigating this tough time, we are here to help.  There are many options available at Incentive Counselling, including programs for families, such as the Family Reconciliation Program.  This program helps parents to make decisions with their children’s best interests at the forefront and includes a program for children to help them navigate this very difficult time.  Additionally, compassionate and knowledgeable divorce coaching to provide support and guidance is available for individuals.  Call us today or book an appointment.