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Helping Your Children Cope With Your Separation and Divorce

NORMAL REACTIONS: These normal reactions of children generally appear during the period of separation and during the year or so of initial adaptation to the divorce. Some reactions may persist longer.

  1. Anger: Angry at both parents, at self, and siblings (may be hidden anger or expressed through words or behaviors); increased sibling squabbles.
  2. Denial: Pretending the divorce did not occur or acting as if they are unaffected; trying to reunite parents.
  3. Fear: Worrying about their own or other’s safety and security; expressing fears about their own welfare and future caregiving; clinging; seeking contact and reassurance.
  4. Guilt/Self-Blame: Wishful thinking and many “if only’s”; asking questions over and over; seeking reassurance and relief; blaming themselves in overt and/or hidden ways; unconsciously seeking punishment.
  5. Health or Sleep Changes: Minor health complaints; appetite or sleep changes; bad dreams or fear of sleeping alone.
  6. Insecurity: Clinging; refusing to go to school; increased possessiveness of people, pets, and possessions; testing and seeking limits, especially when switching from one parent’s home to the other; seeking substitute figures.
  7. Protection of Parents: Acting like little adults; hiding their grief so they can comfort and nurture the parent.
  8. Regression: Returning to earlier level of functioning (seeking out security blanket, bedwetting); usually turns around quickly with reassurance and the absence of criticism and judgment.
  9. Sadness: Saddened constantly or at intervals; crying, tired, or hyperactive; withdrawn.

REMEMBER! These are all normal reactions. They are part of the adapting and healing process.

WARNING SIGNS: These signs in children may indicate a need for increased parental support or professional intervention, especially if they appear after the divorce process is settled and the new routines are underway.

  • An exaggeration in the normal responses
  • Verbalizing despair (“maybe I should just kill myself so you and Dad won’t have to fight over me.”)
  • Accident proneness
  • Giving away their possessions
  • Withdrawing to the point of isolation
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Extended change in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Preoccupation with illness of self and others
  • School troubles (changes in peer relations, classroom behavior, and/or academic performance)
  • Lying
  • Destroying own or other’s property
  • Deliberately hurting or wounding themselves
  • Significant change in personality over time (quiet child becomes hyperactive or an outgoing child withdraws)
  • Refusing to stay with formerly trusted adults
  • Explosive behavior (rages, screaming, tantrums)
  • Stealing
  • Running away from home
  • Health complaints and health changes (frequent headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea or constipation, skin reactions)
  • Becoming unusually rigid about everyday patterns
  • Intense, unrealistic fears


remember that he children need to love BOTH parents.
DO encourage and clearly answer questions about the divorce.
DO be patient with the children.
DO tell the truth about the divorce as far as you are able.
DO allow for expression of feelings by your children.
DO offer comfort, warmth, and support
DO reassure the children that he divorce is an adult problem (they did NOT cause the divorce).
DO reassure the children that you will always be their parent.
DO take care of yourself and your own well-being.
DO preserve the normal household routines and keep changes to a minimum
DO try to build similar rules and routines in both homes.
DO use family, support groups, and professionals for help.
DO learn about the normal responses of children to divorce.
DO set up a place for children’s belongings during visiting.
DO make significant adults in children’s lives aware of the divorce (teachers, counselors, doctors, babysitters).

DON’T send messages to your former spouse through the children.
DON’T ask children to keep secrets from your former spouse.
DON’T use the children as pawns in power struggles with your former spouse.
DON’T belittle and criticize your former spouse in front of the children.
DON’T tell the children what to think or feel.
DON’T ask the children to take sides or pump them for information about your former spouse.
DON’T use the children as confidants or substitutes for your former spouse and friends.
DON’T compare your feelings to those that your children have.
DON’T block your children’s wish to talk and ask questions about the divorce and the changes it brings.
DON’T put the children in the middle of any conflicts with your former spouse.


Books are a way to provide support for children who need contact, reassurance, warmth, and support from those they love. The books below can help. You can find them at your local library or bookstore:

The Parent’s Book About Divorce, Richard A. Gardner, M.D., Bantam, N.Y. 1991.
Survival Skills for Single Parents! Paul J. Ciborowski, Stratmar Edu. Systems, Port Chester, N.Y., 1988.
Growing Up Divorced, Linda Francke, Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1983.
Explaining Divorce to Children, Earl Grollman, Beacon Press, Boston, 1969.

The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce, Richard A. Gardner, M.D., Bantam, N.Y., 1970.

Dinosaurs Divorce, Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, 1986.
Daddy Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Betty Boegehold, Western Publishing, Wisconsin, 1985.
The Divorce Workbook, Sally Ives and Others, Waterfront Books, Vermont, 1985.
Divorce is a Grown-up Problem, Janet Sinberg, Avon, N.Y., 1978.

A Month of Sundays, Rose Blue, Watts, N.Y., 1972.
It’s Not the End of the World, Judy Blume, Bradbury Press, N.Y., 1972.
How Does it Feel When Your Parents Get Divorced? Terry Berger, Messner, N.Y., 1976.

Coping When Your Family Falls Apart, Dianna Booher, Messner, N.Y., 1978.
What’s Going to Happen to Me? Eda Le Shan, Four Winds Press, N.Y., 1978.
How to Get It Together When Your Parents Are Coming Apart, Arlene Richards, Bantam, N.Y., 1976.