How to look after your child's mental health when going through divorce

·5-min read
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West with their oldest kids Saint and North in New York in 2016 (Getty)
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West with their oldest kids Saint and North in New York in 2016. (Getty)

No-one enters into a marriage expecting it not to work out, but divorce is, unfortunately, a fact of life. 

An estimated 42% of marriages in the UK will end in divorce, with the median length of time a marriage lasts being 12.3 years.

According to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data from 2019, there were 107,599 divorces of opposite-sex couples in England and Wales that year, an increase of 18.4% from 2018.

Reality star Kim Kardashian recently filed for divorce from her husband, singer Kanye West. The pair have agreed to joint custody of their four young children, North, seven, Saint, five, Chicago, three, and Psalm, one.

But agreeing custody arrangements is not the only hurdle parents have to overcome when going through a divorce. They will also be worried about the impact of their separation on their children's mental health.

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What effect does divorce have on a child’s mental health?

“It depends very much on how that divorce is managed,” psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Beverley Blackman tells Yahoo UK.

“A lot of detrimental effects can be mitigated if both partners focus on the child's needs and feelings - they will be going through their own turmoil and are probably stressed, frightened and confused, with no idea of how life will look in the short to medium term.

“They will go through a grieving process for life as they knew it before the divorce - and they will have to get used to a new way of living as well. It's a lot to ask, but kids are generally quite resilient and the better the separation process is orchestrated and managed, the easier on them it will be.”

Spending time with each parent, if joint custody has been agreed, is important during a divorce (Getty)
Spending time with each parent, if joint custody has been agreed, is important during a divorce (Getty)

Kids benefit from lots of reassurance, so Blackman says to make sure you frequently explain how things are going to work, so that your children can feel secure.

“They also need reassurance that both their parents love them, and that the divorce is not their fault," she adds. 

"They may have a fear that, because their parents do not love each other any more, the parents may end up not loving them or wanting to spend time with them."

To combat this fear, a solid routine in which the child or children can spend time with each parent is needed.

“Young kids may find it confusing at first, but they will get used to it and know that that time is exclusively for them and each parent,” Blackman continues.

“Older kids may display more negative emotions such as anger, and they will also need reassuring. They will perhaps want to talk about what happened between their parents more, or they may want to isolate or spend time with friends instead. 

"Be consistent and loving with them; tell them as much as is appropriate, and continue to reassure them that they are loved.”

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When speaking to your child about divorce, it’s important to stay neutral and not go into the reasons behind the break up.

“The child is able to understand more about adult relationships as they become a teenager, so only give information if the teen asks for it,” Blackman advises.

“Don't dwell too much on what happened between you, or the emotional side of things: it's enough to explain that sometimes, with adult relationships, people can grow apart and feel that they are better off as friends rather than as partners, or something along those lines. 

"Focus on how things are going to be in the future and how you are going to make this work with your former partner.”

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This means you should refrain from bad-mouthing your ex, as alienation from a parent can cause confusion for children.

“They will internally start to question their own judgement of the relationship with both parents,” Blackman adds.

“They may also appear appeasing and compliant towards both parents, leaving it very difficult for either parent to know what is going on in the child's head, or how they feel. 

"They may tell you what they think they want you to hear. This is damaging to the child and can often create difficulties in relationships in later life.”

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If you have agreed on joint custody, Blackman says you need to uphold the principles of the agreement and stick to the contact schedule, as this helps to create security for the child.

“Treat the other partner with respect and if you need to make alterations to the schedule, discuss it amicably: set the tone as you mean to go on,” she continues.

“It is in the child's best interests to have parents that respect their right to a relationship with both parents and who support that. 

"You may have fallen out of love with your partner, but your child hasn't – the other person is still their mother or father, and it is of great importance that this is respected and adhered to.”

For more advice on how to speak to children about divorce, visit Relate.

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