How to talk to Children When Getting a Divorce

Written by Sierra Alvis

Can a parents' split teach kids to become better people? Learn how Mom and Dad's steady support can help kids grow.


When Lisa Concepcion was a cheerleader in high school, searching for her family in the stands wasn't much of a challenge. At every game, without fail, she'd find her mother and father, sitting next to her other mother and father.

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The combined support of her parents and step-parents instilled in Concepcion a sense of security that she says helped her succeed in college and marriage. The 29-year-old publicist from New Jersey looks back at her parents' divorce as not only the best thing to happen to their relationship, but as an experience that taught her valuable life lessons.

"Being a child of divorce taught me that marriage is a choice," Concepcion says. "You choose to be in it, and you can choose to leave if it's not working. If people aren't happy with themselves, then they can't be there to support others."

Concepcion is part of a growing number of people leading happy, successful lives despite growing up in divorced families. They're bucking the statistics that say children of divorce are consistently left emotionally damaged, unable to develop into psychologically balanced adults or commit to healthy long-term relationships. Instead, they are learning from their parents' mistakes and living better lives because of it.

"Divorce teaches kids that people make mistakes," says Dr. Amy Beth Taublieb, a clinical psychologist from Buffalo, N.Y. "It teaches we don't always have to live with our mistakes. That life's situations can be adjusted. That it's OK to change one's mind."

Some factors contributing to the growing number of children who thrive after divorce are friendlier court systems and the lessening of social stigma. With divorce becoming more prevalent, kids have a larger peer group to relate to and are dealing with better-trained health professionals, Taublieb says.

Despite this, children's immediate emotional conflicts haven't changed. Feelings of abandonment and low self-esteem are still challenges, but parents are now learning how to help children overcome them. Many parents now realize that it isn't divorce that hurts children; it's how they handle divorce.

"My parents rose above their differences for my benefit," Concepcion says. Having just bought her first home, she says she looks forward to spending the holidays there with her entire extended family. "Their divorce taught me about priorities and the importance of pursuing individual happiness," Concepcion says. "My parents are living examples of that."

To ensure your child's well-being both during and after your divorce, Dr. Amy Beth Taublieb, clinical psychologist and author of A-Z Handbook of Child and Adolescent Issues, helped us compile these parenting tips:

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Remember your child's age. Communicate on his level, using words he'll understand. If he's old enough to understand the divorce, try not to turn him into your new best friend or confidant. Don't use him as a replacement partner. Don't involve him in parental arguments or struggles.

Encourage your child's questions, but keep in mind that it's acceptable to say, "This is between your daddy and me" or "This is for the lawyers to figure out." In other words, you don't have to answer everything.

Be prepared for kids to express their emotions in different ways. Young children might revert to infant behavior, such as bed-wetting or attachment to a blanket. Adolescents might act out by shoplifting or skipping classes. Others might try to become the perfect child by taking on extra responsibilities at home or school.

Be sensitive to your child's needs, but set limits. Don't let her run the house or play up to your feelings of guilt. Respect her privacy, but keeps tabs on major changes in behavior. Try to stick to normal rules and routines.

Outside Help
Give your child permission to see professional help if necessary; he may very well need someone to talk to who is not as closely involved as you are.
Photographer: Dana Fry

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