Parenting through a divorce: How to keep stress and sadness for children to a minimum

Brad and Ang in happier times with their little ones [Photo: Getty]

Divorce can be a messy business. Just ask Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. But things can get even more complicated when children are involved. And when it comes to Brad and Angelina, there are six little ones to consider. The latest UK national statistics show that 48% of divorcing couples have at least one child, and over a fifth have children under five. While breaking-up is always going to be hard to do, there are ways to navigate the minefield to minimise stress and sadness for your smalls, while maximising their understanding of what’s going on.

“Going through a separation or divorce is one of the toughest situations a parent may face,” explains Jo Wiltshire, parenting expert for “Not only do you have to deal with your own feelings and practicalities, you also have your children’s needs and feelings to think about – and often they may express a range of feelings from shock and confusion to anger and sadness. However, with a little love and guidance you can help your children feel more settled.”

As the world still reels from the Brangelina break-up news, here’s our expert advice on parenting through a split.

Don’t make children the go-between

According to Chireal Shallow, psychologist at The Baby Show this can happen when parents have a breakdown in communication. it can be very easy for adults to slip in to making the child the messenger. “This can create a rupture in the relationship between the parent and child and may cause the child to feel upset, uncomfortable and pressured into taking sides. This is not healthy for the child and is not the best way to approach starting lives as a separated family.” Instead you have to learn to find a way to communicate with the other parent.

[Photo: via Pexels]

Don’t overshare

When parents feel upset they can often use their child for comfort, but leaning on little ones for support and transfer emotions to the child warns Chireal Shallow. “This is not helpful as it may cause the child to feel more responsible; shift the role the child has in the family dynamic to be one of adult mode. This may cause a problem in the relationship as the child may learn/grow to resent the parent. Oversharing of the intricacies of the break up and how an adult is feeling is not something that should be shared with the child. It is too much responsibility.” Instead talk to friends, family or a therapist to get the support you need.

Try not to pry for details of the other parent

Sure its tempting to make your child tell you every single detail about the time spent with the other parent, but this should be avoided at all costs says Chireal Shallow. “Children should not be investigated or interrogated; they should be allowed to spend time with each parent on their own and this time is for them to share alone, not have to repeat with the ex-partner,” she explains. “As long as vital importation about care is being shared and the children are not at risk, the absent parent should enjoy the time away from the child and focus on rebuilding their own lives.” Chireal suggests waiting until your little one wants to tell you about the time they’ve spent away from you.

Don’t bad mouth your ex

Sometimes you might not even realise you’re doing it, sometimes you might think it’s a harmless throwaway comment (or six!), but bad-mouthing the other parent can really upset your little one. “You need to allow the child to formulate their own relationship and feelings towards their parents,” explains Chireal.  “The relationship your child has with their other parent is very different from the relationship you have with them. You should also keep in mind that there was a reason you got together regardless of the circumstances of this current separation, you once were in love and chose to have, love and raise a child together. If you remember this, it may help to ensure you avoid bad mouthing the other parent.” Jo Emerson, confidence coach, Human Behaviour Expert and author of Flying for Beginners; a proven system for lasting self-confidence, suggests you should try and focus on your ex’s good points. “Your kids love your ex and if you can talk about things your ex does well it reassures your kids that their feelings of love are justified.”

Allow your kids to be sad

Children’s feelings come out in all kinds of ways. When Jo Emerson divorced from her husband 5 years ago, her three children all reacted in different ways. “One of my daughters was very angry for a while and another found being away from me terribly difficult on her weekends with her Dad.  But we persevered with the routine knowing that the most important thing for our girls was that they maintained strong relationships with both parents. We also paid for counselling for our daughter who was so angry - this really helped her to move past her frustrations and hurt.”

[Photo: Josh Willink via Pexels]

It’s good to talk

Opening up a discussion and asking your children how they feel about the situation is key in helping children to accept their new normal. “Let your child legitimise their feelings,” suggests Jo Wiltshire. “Letting your child express how they feel (despite how painful it is for you) will help them process the situation and ease their frustration – it also gives you the opportunity to explain what is happening. If your child finds it hard to do this in person ask them to write an email or letter. The process of writing it down can be healing for them.”

Don’t fight in front of the kids

When emotions are running high it’s easy for parents to forget the golden rule of keeping fights out of range from little ears. “Research has found that children who are hit hardest by divorce are those exposed to ongoing parental battles,” explains Jo Wiltshire. “If you feel things are going to get heated when discussing your divorce with your partner, choose a neutral space away from the children.” Jo Emerson suggests keeping disagreements and tricky conversations with your ex to email. That way conversations don’t happen within earshot of the kids.

Don’t make children choose

“Children need to be free to love both of their parents and the extended families on both sides,” explains Jo Emerson. “Under no circumstances should a child be forced to choose their loyalties.  Let your children have freely loving relationships with your ex. Parenting is not a popularity contest - you are still both responsible for raising happy, healthy kids and supporting each other to do this.”

Find your new normal

Children need to feel safe and secure and helping to outline what’s going to happen in advance will help them better accept it. “Our children spend a lot of time with their Dad but they have one home and that gives them stability,” explains Jo Emerson of her divorce arrangements. “We have a routine (every other weekend and a night in the week with their Dad - the rest of the time with me) so that everyone knows where they stand. My children really like knowing what’s coming up and who they’ll be with; it makes them feel safe.”

[Photo: via Pexels]

Seek expert legal advice

“It is not uncommon in this day and age for complex family structures to exist; much like Brad and Angelina’s, and this can make divorce proceedings more difficult,” says Zahra Pabani, divorce lawyer from Shakespeare Martineau.

“The court’s paramount concern will be the welfare of the children and it is likely that a shared care agreement will be reached to ensure that their children have, and maintain, good relationships with both parents. It is very unlikely that the children will be split.”

Kerry Russell, Family Law Solicitor at Gorvins Solicitors suggests divorcing parents seek appropriate legal advice at the earliest opportunity.

“It is important that parents know their legal rights in relation to the children should there be a dispute,” she explains. “It is recommended that they seek legal advice from a Solicitor specialising in Family Law at the earliest opportunity in order to obtain guidance and support in what can be a complex area.”

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