How to Help Kids Manage the Stress of Divorce

The following is a guest post by Erin Kassenbaum.

If stress burned calories, many of us would weigh 90 pounds, right? Work, family and the never-ending “to-do” list all create significant stress on our lives. Most of us adults can effectively manage our stress. But what about children, especially kids whose parents are going through a divorce?

Understandably, divorce causes a great deal of stress for children. They are full of fear over the changes they are experiencing, and often worry they are the reason their parents are getting divorced. One of my main goals when working with clients is helping them help their kids manage stress during and after divorce. Children generally respond to stress in one of the following three ways: positive, tolerable, or toxic.

Positive stress response is a healthy part of development where kids learn to cope. Children experience positive stress when getting a shot or starting school after summer vacation. Tolerable stress is more serious and longer lasting, but manageable. This is often the type of stress children experience when their parents get divorced. The good news is both types of stress can be negated by positive, loving relationships with parents and other caregivers who can help them adapt and cope with stress.

However, if parents are so high-conflict they are not able to develop a cooperative co-parenting or parallel-parenting relationship, kids are at risk for developing a toxic stress response. Toxic stress puts children in a constant state of fight-or-flight mode, affecting their brain development, suppressing their immune system and causing learning and memory problems. As adults, children who experience toxic stress are at risk of developing heart disease, substance abuse problems and depression. Obviously, we need to help kids manage stress so that it doesn’t become toxic.

This is one reason it’s so important for parents to focus on developing a manageable co-parenting or parallel-parenting relationship with one another. In addition, parents can help their kids manage stress by:

  • Understanding it’s normal for kids to be stressed during the divorce process. Don’t get stressed because the kids are stressed!
  • Validating the kids’ feelings about the divorce. Using phrases such as “I know you feel sad,” or, “I understand you miss seeing your mom everyday like you used to.” Kids need to hear that it’s okay to feel how they feel.
  • Encouraging honesty. It’s important kids know they can always be honest with both parents.
  • Asking the kids what they think would make them feel better. Sometimes the only answer may be that mom and dad get back together and that’s okay. Try to offer simple ideas like taking a walk, watching a movie together or calling the other parent.
  • Keeping a regular routine, especially for younger children. Routine and consistency give kids tremendous security and comfort.
  • Repeatedly reassuring them they are not the cause of the divorce and that both parents will always love them, no matter what.

How Divorcing Parents Can Reduce Conflict Over Children

Written by Erin Kassebaum/mediator

A while ago I was having a relaxing evening at home with my family when I received nasty a text message from a friend about a misunderstanding between us. I felt attacked, angry, and upset. I spent the next few hours sending messages back and forth with my friend. At the end of the night, after my kids were in bed, I realized that I had missed the entire evening with them because I was distracted by the fight with my friend.

Fortunately, I was able to work it out with my friend and we actually grew closer as a result of the misunderstanding between us. So I guess the evening wasn’t a total waste. But what if we hadn’t worked it out, and our conflict was still unresolved? Or, even worse, what if I was still spending a lot of time and energy trying to find a resolution, but never getting anywhere? I would be missing a lot of fun evenings with my kids, and spending much of my time feeling frustrated, angry and hurt. This describes the unfortunate reality for many divorced parents.

While most divorcing parents feel mutual anger, distrust, and hostility around the time of their divorce, their negative feelings typically diminish over time and they are able to develop a cooperative and flexible co-parenting relationship (Haddad, Phillips, & Bone, 2016). However, about 25% of divorced parents are considered high-conflict (Spillane-Grieco, 2000). High-conflict parents are typically well adjusted, caring parents individually, but their relationship with one another is obsessive and uncontrollable, resulting in frequent, severe, unresolved conflict between them (Spillane-Grieco, 2000).

The driving force between high-conflict parents is their perception that they have no control over their relationship with the other parent, and the other parent’s relationship with their children (Malcore, Windell, Seyuin, & Hill, 2010).

This perceived lack of control, combined with the intense love both parents feel for their children, is a perfect recipe for anxiety, fear, and constant conflict.

The truth is that this perceived lack of control over the other parent is more than perception It is reality. High-conflict parents really do not have control over the other parent, or the other parent’s relationship with their children. If one parent says black, the other parent automatically says white. It’s difficult, frustrating and crazy-making to share the people you love most with a person you have no control over. This is why high-conflict parents frequently end up in court or using a parenting consultant. This is expensive, both emotionally and financially.

The best thing high-conflict parents can do for themselves, and most importantly for their children, is accept that they can’t control the other parent, and do their best to forge a parallel parenting relationship. The parenting style of one parent may be dramatically different than the other parent’s style, but children are usually able to adapt to these differences fairly easily. The kids always win when both parents are focused on creating a healthy, positive relationship with them.