Divorce is painful enough without kids in the picture. When kids are in the picture, it can get even more complicated.  Here’s your guide to helping your kids cope.

When you’re feeling defensive, angry, and hurt, it’s tempting to use your children as messengers: asking them for information about your spouse, making them relay information, and pitting them against the other parent, especially if custody has not yet been decided.

Don’t feel guilty about these inclinations–they’re completely natural–but don’t act on them, either. Your child is already upset, confused, and worried about the future. In some (heartbreaking) cases, they are worried that they somehow caused their parents to split.  Try to be empathetic instead of spiteful. You don’t have to pretend everything is okay, but limit what you say about the divorce to honest, age-appropriate information that your kids need to know.  Children instinctively know that they are half mom and half dad–when you put down the other parent, you are indirectly putting your child down as well.

1. Stay Involved

Divorce can be scary for children. They wonder whether you still love them and whether you’ll still be a part of their lives. It’s absolutely vital that you don’t disappear on them. You may want to retreat into solitude, which has its time and place, but don’t skip the school play or parent-teacher conferences just to avoid your soon-to-be-ex. Disappearing will only reinforce your children’s fears. In the same vein, don’t pout or withdraw when your children leave to be with their other parent. It’s hard, but try to stay positive and encourage your child to continue a relationship with both parents.

2. No Bad-Mouthing

Talk to your spouse beforehand about what to tell your kids about the divorce. Agree on how to describe the situation. If possible, talk to your child together, and speak respectfully of each other. Avoid blaming your spouse, even if infidelity occurred. Huffington Post challenges, “Set a goal to share one positive thing a day about their other parent. It can be difficult, but it can be done.”  Make it clear that your child did nothing to contribute to your decision to divorce.

All your children really need to know is that you and your spouse have decided to part ways, but that does not affect your love for your children, and you’ll still be there for them. Get your anger out with a professional therapist, divorce support group, or trusted friend, not your son or daughter.

3. Try Mediation

Mediation can be a helpful and peaceful way to come to an agreement on issues like parenting and custody. Many counties have mandatory mediation for these issues if you and your spouse disagree. If you don’t want the court to determine your parenting plan, you and your spouse will need to create one.  The standard for creating a parenting plan is keeping the best interests of the children in mind. This varies a lot based on the child’s age, schedule, relationship with parents, and personal needs.  During a divorce, children generally do not have a say in the parenting plan or who has custody of them. In some cases, however, it may be appropriate to appoint an attorney for your child so they can have a say in custody and parenting time decisions.

4. Take Care of Yourself

Being a good parent starts with self-care. Even though your life has been turned upside down, do your best to get enough sleep, eat healthy, get exercise, and stay connected with friends and family. Don’t forget to pamper yourself, pursue hobbies you love, and simply relax.  If your children see that you are taking care of yourself, even in this difficult time, they will learn to take care of themselves, too.

Research shows that talking about ourselves makes us feel better–so enlist a social worker or professional counselor to get all of your negative feelings out in a safe place. Or keep a journal. Most of all, be patient and gentle with yourself; remember that healing takes time.  It is not a bad idea to consider therapy for your child as well, as they may need someone to talk to about the whirlwind of feelings they are experiencing.

5. Be an Emotional Role Model

A divorce proceeding is a new and stressful event for a child. They are constantly looking to their parents to see how they should be reacting to all of these uncertain events. If you blow up at a text message that your spouse sent you or cry every night, children will take these cues and learn that this is how they should be reacting, too. It is important to be calm and contemplative in response to emotional triggers during divorce. This doesn’t mean you need to turn off your emotions completely–it just means that you must evaluate how your response to a trigger will affect your child.  Saying, “Your father sent me a message that upset me a little bit, but I’ll be okay,” is much better for your child’s adjustment than yelling, crying, and blaming. In the long run, such a response will be better for you, too.

6. Provide Structure and Clarity

During a divorce, kids need structure and routine even more than usual. Give them a schedule so they know what to expect as much as possible, and stick to normal bedtimes and curfews. Explain who will pick them up from school, who’ll take them to activities, and where they’ll spend the next holiday. Even if you don’t have all the details worked out yet, the knowledge you do have will make them feel safer and more prepared. Just make sure you keep information blame-free.

Talk to your spouse about how to maintain consistency in your two households. You may want to bend the rules for your children because divorce is stressful on all of you, but your kids actually need boundaries more than ever to make them feel safe.

7. Enjoy Time with Your Child

As much as possible, have fun with your children, rather than using them as your therapist or stewing in negative feelings. Keep doing things they love. Play and goof around. Hug your child and say “I love you” often. Reassure younger children that even though you and your spouse are divorcing, that doesn’t change your relationship with your kids, and the divorce was not their fault. Children need to hear this over and over!

When your kids act upset, ask them how they’re feeling about the divorce, listen, and create a space for honest, open discussion. Acknowledge their emotions and tell them you understand, even though you can’t necessarily fix their sadness. This will foster trust and help you maintain a good relationship moving forward.

8. Cooperate with Your Divorce Attorney

A long, drawn-out custody battle can emotionally scar your children. Rather than nitpicking, try to cooperate during arbitration or mediation so you and your children can get on with your lives. As Parents magazine attests, “Research has found that the most poorly adjusted kids of divorce are those exposed to ongoing parental battles.” In other words, such a battle can leave children feeling insecure and makes them more prone to difficulties such as depression and anxiety later in life.  Being civil with your spouse and refusing to insult him or her in front of your kids is one of the best things you can do for them.

Are you going through a divorce with children? The attorneys at Holtey Law specialize in all areas of family law, including child custody and parenting time. We have the expertise and empathy that can help you through this difficult time.

Contact Portland’s best divorce attorneys today — call us at 503-224-9878 or use our contact form.

Photos: Davide Cassanello, Brandy, Phalinn Ooi