How to Divorce the Right Way: Prioritizing Children and Mental Health

Last updated on: May 31, 2024
A family therapy session showing a Black family with a father, mother, and young son sitting on a sofa, talking to a female therapist who sits across from them with a notepad

Understanding Divorce and Its Implications

Divorce is described as a “crisis situation in a family” as a result of previous conflicts that were unable to be resolved. The pre, during, and post-divorce periods encompasses a multitude of adjustments to day-to-day life; financial, psychological, social, environmental, and emotional, both for children and parents. It is a process that often consists of interparental conflict, triangulation, and gatekeeping, as well as coparenting and custody arrangements. As a result of their inherent vulnerabilities, children will experience several disadvantages during this period of time, meanwhile, parents will strive to create a sense of 'normal' for their children amidst the turmoil.

Prioritizing Children’s Well-Being 

Explaining the Situation

A female therapist and a young girl, both Caucasian, sit facing each other in a bright, modern office. The therapist is holding a pen and notepad, gesturing while speaking to the girl, who looks attentive

Children are sensitive to the moods of their caregivers.

A child’s relationship with their caregiver(s) and the caregiver(s) parenting behaviors has a direct influence on child development and can be predictors of child behaviours. This is why it is important to include the child in divorce proceedings. Parents will be advised to set aside their differences to prioritize the well-being of the child

It is important that both parents are on the same page as consistency is important during a divorce. When introducing a conversation about divorce, it is recommended that parents have a discussion together about what they will say to the child prior to speaking to the child. If both parents are unavailable for this conversation, the parent most accessible to the child should be the one to have the discussions.

Developmental stages are going to be important to take into consideration when speaking with children. Considering children's developmental stages is crucial; preschoolers might experience fear and self-blame, whereas adolescents may benefit from honest disclosures.

Unfortunately, more often than not, interparental conflict is common during the pre and post-divorce period. Frequent components of interparental conflict include parental gatekeeping, disagreements in decision making, poorer communication, inconsistent parenting styles, mistrust, and little cooperation. In parallel to these runs one other major and common conflict; triangulation.

Triangulation occurs when parents put their children in the middle of their conflict(s), intentionally or not.  Children who become heavily involved with their parent’s conflicts will align with one parent over time to help alleviate the pressure of having to stay loyal to two parents.

A study conducted by Pires and Martins (2021) found that triangulation was one of the highest predictors of negative effects on the adjustment of the child, both in younger and older children. Triangulation can lead to extreme anxiety in the child and ultimately impact the parent-child relationship, which is why during this period of time, it is crucial maintain the quality of the relationship with both parents. If there has already been a lot of conflict in the house hold, it is important that this is addressed with the child as children are sensitive to all versions of parental conflict, including suppression and polite hostility.

Maintaining Routine and Stability

A Caucasian mother and daughter standing next to each other against a wooden wall, both dressed in warm clothing. The mother is bending over slightly towards the daughter, who appears shy or hesitant.

Modeling ‘calm’, even if it is not how a parent feels can be beneficial to helping insulate the child from interparental conflict. In fact, dealing with conflict positively and finding resolutions can help enhance the child’s security and sense of stability in the family . In addition to modeling calm, maintaining consistency in parenting can also help children adjust better. Interparental cooperation with frequent communication about child-rearing and responsibilities has positive outcomes in child adjustment.

During this period of time, children will express a variety of different emotions, thoughts, and behaviours and it is imperative that a child feels supported, reassured, and loved by both of their parents. For children, expressing their distress look different from that of an adult. Communication may happen through books, pictures, toys, stories, plays, and drawings as these things are usually far more accessible to children than words. Ideally, parents are accepting and receptive to their child(ren)’s way of communicating and a achieve a balance between acknowledgement and acceptance.

Mental Health Considerations

A South Asian woman seated at a table during a therapy session, looking distressed and thoughtful as she listens to an unseen therapist.

Although age will impact how a child handles a stressor (or trauma) like divorce, generally speaking, children will experience guilt, anger, hostility, low self-confidence and self-esteem, impulse-control issues, anxiety, depression, and difficulties in their personal and social relationships during and after the divorce process. Adult children of divorce parents show high levels of both depression and anxiety, low self-esteem, life satisfaction, self-sufficiency, quality of life, and struggles with their personal relationships. When Sorek (2019) conducted a study asking children to rate their quality of life during divorce proceedings, children who experienced higher levels of interparental conflict rated their quality of life as lower. If you are finding that your child is withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy, they are not wanting to spend time with friends, or experiencing difficulties in school (academically or socially), these may be signs of distress that are precursors to depression, issues with adjustment, and school refusal.

Co-Parenting Strategies

A counseling session with a Black couple and a therapist in a comfortable, well-lit living room. The couple is sitting close together on a sofa, appearing stressed, while the therapist, sitting across from them, listens attentively

Custody is a major component of divorce including children. By definition, joint custody is not spending less than 40% of the time with one parent and not more than 60% of the time with another. Co-parenting is an engaged and active attempt to support each other’s parenting styles while maintaining healthy and flexible boundaries in correlation with collaborative child-rearing.

Interparental conflict is incredibly common during divorce and children are often caught in the middle of it.

Low parental conflict is important to enhancing a child’s ability to cope, however, it is often challenging to achieve between separating parents. Children need to have the opportunity to access both parents at their own will otherwise, they may feel abandoned by the other parent. The parent that leaves the space must stay in contact with the child, at least once a week, and on a daily basis during the peak time of separation. With nurturing, considerate parents, children do have the opportunity to thrive, despite the challenges of divorce

Self-Care During Divorce

Parents themselves are often likely to experience higher levels of stress and feelings of grief, depression, anxiety, and general unhappiness. As a result of the increase in responsibility and chores, parents may also find themselves becoming less receptive to their child’s needs. If both parents are struggling individually, this is also likely to impact the way they communicate and interact with one another, further impacting the health and well-being of their children. Conveniently, co-parenting works both in the favour of the child and parents. For parents, it increases their self-efficacy, lowered parenting stress, and aggravation.

However, co-parenting is not easy. It requires flexibility and openness, qualities that are hard to come by in conflict. The reality is both parents bring unique characteristics and qualities into the relationship and into their child’s life so the goal is to establish a new relationship with your soon-to-be former partner.

Techniques and tools for maintaining open channels with the ex-spouse

If possible, creating a business-like relationship between both parties can help with mediation of tension and conflict. This entails communicating in a clear fashion about children’s needs, providing consistent and clear routines, and aligned versions of positive discipline. Self-compassion, a construct and skill that practices self-kindness, mindfulness, and acknowledgement of imperfection, has been shown to predict positive adjustments in parents after marital separation. Furthermore, if one struggles with self-compassion, it is a skill that can be taught. One way to practice self-compassion is to be accepting of one’s negative thoughts about the end of their marriage. It is okay to be upset and it is okay to acknowledge that you are upset. Parents are also encouraged to reach out to their social support systems such as; friends, family, and extracurricular communities. It is suggested to not look at the dissolution of the marriage as a battle; if you are struggle to keep conflict levels low, divorce mediation can be helpful to ensure both parents are on the same page.

Seeking Professional Help

A woman, appearing Hispanic, in a serious conversation with a therapist in a bright and airy room. The woman looks concerned and is seated with her hands clasped together, focusing intently on the therapist.

If you are finding yourself and or your child experiencing any of the mentioned mental health or behavioural changes, there are several different therapy options that may be helpful. Individual therapy can help process feelings of guilt, depression, and or anxiety. Many individuals may see divorce as a personal failure, so individual therapy can also be an opportunity to work through feelings of fault, creating a new perspective. For the child, individual therapy can create a space of safety to process any emotions meanwhile helping them navigate their understanding of divorce. Family therapy can be incredibly beneficial as it allows all family members to get together and process their feelings as a unit. Children have the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions in a space that is mediated by a professional, helping to reduce fears that may come up. Couples therapy can help the couple process the divorce even prior to the official proceedings. A couples therapist can act as a mediator and help the couple set up a co-parenting plan while helping to validate and process both parent’s feelings. 

Post-Divorce Adjustment

The aftermath of divorce on children often manifests in various emotional and behavioral challenges, from guilt and anger to anxiety and depression. Parental struggles with stress, depression, and reduced receptiveness to children's needs further compound the situation. Prioritizing children's well-being demands setting aside parental differences, ensuring consistency, and considering developmental stages when discussing divorce. Co-parenting emerges as a potential solution, offering benefits for both children and parents by enhancing self-efficacy and reducing stress. However, achieving effective co-parenting amidst conflict demands flexibility and openness, necessitating the establishment of a new relationship between former partners.

Practicing self-compassion becomes pivotal for parents navigating post-divorce adjustments, predicting positive outcomes and facilitating better communication. Creating a clear channel for communication about children's needs, fostering consistent routines, and embracing positive discipline approaches further strengthen co-parenting dynamics.

Seeking support from social networks and reframing the dissolution of marriage from a battle to a mediated resolution aids in managing conflict. For individuals and children experiencing mental health or behavioral changes due to divorce, therapy options ranging from individual therapy to family and couples therapy offer avenues for processing emotions, reframing perspectives, and navigating the complex emotional landscape post-divorce. Ultimately, a collaborative approach from both parents aims to mitigate the detrimental effects of divorce, fostering an environment conducive to post-divorce growth, resilience, and emotional well-being for both parents and children.

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About the Author

Margarita Iarovaia

Margarita Iarovaia is a registered psychotherapist and Canadian certified counsellor who works with people through the intricate landscapes of trauma, sex, relationships, mindfulness, and identity. With a compassionate heart and a wealth of clinical knowledge, Margarita has dedicated her career to helping others heal, grow, and thrive.