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How To Raise Healthy, Happy Kids After Going Through a Divorce

How To Raise Healthy, Happy Kids After Going Through a Divorce

I have had several friends vow to never marry in life because they were so traumatized by their parent’s divorce.

Divorce can be extremely difficult on children. Many times they don’t understand why the divorce had to happen or they may blame themselves as the cause of the divorce. They can also develop a deep distain for the covenant of marriage because of their parent’s bitter divorce or because of the bad behavior of one or both parents following the divorce.

It is important that parents do certain things in order to help the children process the divorce, not blame themselves and still develop in a healthy manner mentally, socially and emotionally. You want your kids to someday have healthy, happy lives and relationships, so help them following the divorce by doing some very specific things, which I will outline below.

1. Get along for the sake of the kids

Keep your arguments away from the eyes and ears of your children. They do not need to be subject to your on-going battles following a divorce.

Some couples report that they get along better with their ex following a divorce. Unfortunately, this is not what most couples experience. You will be going through your own grieving process following the dissolution of a marriage. Do not use your children as your personal counselor and confidant. Seek professional help, so you have someone trusted to vent to who can also provide you with wise counsel.

Keep the conversations about your ex out of eyesight and earshot of your children. It can only harm them. Think of it this way, they are 50% of that other person who you now reject. They can take that rejection personally as they are half of that person. Especially if you are vocal about your disdain for your ex. Your ex is still their parent and if they are not adopted, then they are 50% of that person’s DNA makeup. They can fear your rejection and also think that there are parts of them that you don’t like just as much as you don’t like your ex.

There are situations where you may not be able to avoid your ex someday, such as parent/teacher conferences, weddings, and graduations. Learn to put on a good face and keep your conversations on the surface if interaction is required. Use simple pleasantries as though you are standing in line at the grocery store and you see a colleague from work. “How are you” and “nice weather we have been having” is enough to get through the awkward silence and still maintain a good image to your children.

You can then vent your frustrations regarding your ex to your counselor. There is a time and a place for everything. Blowing off steam to your ex in front of your children is never acceptable. Ranting to your counselor about your ex in the privacy of their office is a much better solution. It’s not that you need to bottle things in forever, it is merely holding on to things until the time is right to release those emotions in a setting that won’t harm your children.

Life is hard enough having to live in two homes, to have time away from one parent while being with the other. It was not their choice nor their preference. Make the transition easier by trying to get along with your ex when you are face to face. If that is of great difficulty then keep the interactions to a minimum. This can be something that is added at a later date into your custody agreement if needed.

Custody exchanges

Custody exchanges are typically when most parents have to see one another the most. Therefore, chose a neutral place for exchange that allows for exchange of the children from one parent to another to happen with ease and little interaction.

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Select a location where a lot of people are present, so there is less likely to be any outbursts or unneeded language by either parent. Keep in mind that there are eyes and ears watching. The most important are those of your children, so keep this in mind when you see your ex and emotions flare inside of you.

I was a stepmom to two children in a previous marriage. I was in their lives for eight years. My experience with both the mom and the dad proved to me that even intelligent, well meaning parents can come unglued at the wrong times and the wrong place when provoked by their ex. Sometimes the mere presence of the ex can be enough to push a person over the edge.

Therefore, the custody exchange, if it can’t be done face to face, can be done from one vehicle to another and the parents remain in their respective vehicles. Only the children get out of the vehicle and move into the other parent’s vehicle. This can help minimize contact and potentially negative interactions that would adversely affect the children. Of course, the children need to be old enough to move independently from one vehicle to the next.

In cases where this is not possible, there are locations associated with some social service agencies that allow for parental exchange, where one parent drops off with a caregiver at the agency and the other parents arrives 15 minutes later to pick up the child. These are sometimes called family resource centers. Check with your local social service agency if you require such a service.

2. Tell them the truth but filter for their age

Do not lie to your child and say that one parent is just moving out for a little while. If you are getting a divorce then you need to tell your children that fact.

However, they do not need to know all the specifics or details. What is usually sufficient is an explanation that although mommy and daddy are no longer going to be married, they still love the kids 100%. Kids need reassurance that it is not their fault and they need to be told they are loved. Not just once, but often, especially following a divorce when the situation can be new, challenging and different from their old life.

If you haven’t told your children that you are getting or are already divorced (yes this happens) then here is a video from Parents.com with tips on telling your children about your divorce:

3. Allow your child to grieve

Grief is the very normal process of going through stages of emotion because of an intense life change. Grief happens not only to the spouses when the marriage ends, but it also happens to the children.

The intensity of emotions varies from one child to the next. The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. These stages can be experienced in varying orders and some stages are sometimes repeated.

It is important to recognize that these feelings are a normal part of your child processing the divorce. Allow them to speak to you about their feelings openly. Getting their feelings out though spoken or written word will help them process through these stages.

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Encourage your child to use “I feel” statements and to discuss their feelings about the divorce with you. Avoid becoming defensive or trying to “fix” their feelings. Allow them to talk openly, empathize with them and let them own their feelings by speaking them aloud to you.

4. Get them some counseling

There are some kids that transition smoothly in life following a divorce. However, there are some kids that do not fare as well.

You, as the parent, must be cognoscente of your child’s behavior and any abnormal behavior that warrants professional help. Here are some behaviors to be aware of and keep an eye out for:

  • Increase in temper tantrums and outbursts
  • Difficulties at school such as grades that have dropped
  • Difficulties/ arguments with their peers have increased
  • Getting in trouble at school
  • Development of an eating disorder
  • Self-harm
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Depressed behaviors: lack of interest in life and/or feelings of hopelessness. See this article for more specific details on how to recognize depression in children: Signs of Depression in Children and How to Help Them to Overcome It
  • Use of drugs or alcohol

If your child exhibits one or more of these problems, then you need to seriously consider getting them professional help. Especially in the case of mental or emotional disorders such as depression and eating disorders, professional help is in the best interest of the child and their development.

If in doubt whether your child needs counseling, it is better to err on the side of being proactive and getting them help. You may be helping to prevent the development of a mental or emotional disorder down the road. Counseling is especially beneficial in teaching children coping skills, helping them process their thoughts and emotions and empowering them to live confidently, regardless of their parent’s marital status.

Group counseling

An option that is often overlooked is group counseling or support groups. These groups can be especially beneficial for children because it can help them feel that they are not alone. They can see and meet other children who are going through the same experience as them.

There is a an organization called DivorceCare for Kids. This organization provides leaders with training and resources to facilitate support groups for children who are going through or have gone through a parental divorce situation. Here is what their website says about this organization:

Are your children angry, hurt, and confused about your separation or divorce? A DivorceCare for Kids (DC4K) group is a safe, fun place where your children can learn skills that will help them heal. DC4K groups blend, games, music, stories, videos and discussion to help kids process the divorce and move forward. Groups meet weekly and are designed for children ages 5-12.

Here is their website, where you can type in your location and find a group near you: https://www.dc4k.org/. This weekly group meets for 13 consecutive weeks. They cover a different topic each week, including these topics along with 8 others:

  • What’s Happening to My Family?
  • I am Not Alone
  • Developing New Relationships
  • It’s Not My Fault
  • Telling My Parents How I Feel

Enrolling your child in a DivorceCare for Kids group can help them immensely during this difficult time in their lives. Even if they show no signs of emotional or mental problems following a divorce that does not mean that there aren’t any issues. Some kids will repress their emotions until a later time.

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Getting them help sooner will help them process the reality of their situation. Using a professional group like DivorceCare is helping your child, more than you can help them yourself. This is good parenting.

5. Don’t say anything bad about the other parent

Resist the temptation to say anything negative about the other parent to your child.

Even if that parent has walked out on the family and left you as a single parent, avoid the temptation to bad mouth the other parent. Why? Because that child still has love in their heart for their parent. They are also made up of 50% you and 50% the other parent. Don’t talk bad about the other parent because your child can take it very personal.

You also want your child to have healthy relationships with both parents in the long run. If one parent is bad mouthing the other parent, it becomes very confusing and emotionally taxing for the child. Use the old saying as your motto “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.

6. Maintain consistency and a routine

Kids thrive on structure and routine. They need to maintain their routines as much as possible in both household. Both parents should work together to come to a common ground on some basic routine objectives such as set bed times, homework rules, types of video games and movies allowed (ratings based decision), and basic rules of conduct for the children.

Neither parent has control over the other parent or their household, nor will things be exactly the same at both households. The goal is to set up some basic guidelines for both households so that the routines for the children can remain intact. This will help the children transition more easily from one home to the other. It will also help the children see that the parents are working together and that they are putting the children’s best interest first.

It can be highly tempting to become lax on the rules following a divorce because you feel bad that the children are subjected to this situation. However, this is when children need structure and guidance the most. They need to know that you are still their parent and their rock. Don’t go soft and allow their world to crumble by allowing behaviors that are going to come back to bite you later.

For example, if you allow your child to stay up playing video games until 9 pm every night when their bed time is actually 8 pm, you are going to have a highly overtired, sleep deprived and crabby child over time. Keeping their best interests in mind, means keeping their routine and their discipline the same, not more lax because you feel bad.

7. Get some books for kids about coping with divorce

There are a plethora of books on the market targeted for kids who are coping with divorce. They are available for all ages of children too.

A simple search on Amazon in their children’s book category will provide you with many options. Read the descriptions of the books to find what may best suite your child. Also read the reviews to find a book that other parents have found to be useful in helping their children. There are also workbooks by a variety of authors available to kids who are able to read and write.

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Just make sure you look at the age guidelines for the materials you are purchasing to ensure you are investing your money on the best options for your children.

8. Resolve parenting conflicts with the kids in mind

There are going to be parenting issues that come up over time. It is unavoidable. The key is to resolve these working as partners. You may not be partners in marriage anymore but you are still partners in raising your children.

Put the kids first. When issues arise, make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the children. This may sound so simple and easy but it will not always be easy.

For example, you may plan to remarry and want to go on a two week honeymoon. Your ex, however, does not want to change the custody schedule to accommodate your honeymoon. If you deviate from the schedule you will be in violation of your agreement, which could put your joint custody status in jeopardy.

So, rather than taking that lovely two week honeymoon, you go away for a long weekend with your new spouse so that you can be back on time for the scheduled custody exchange to maintain your joint custody and the lives of the children remain uninterrupted.

By the way, this is a true story. It happens. At the end of the day your responsibility to your children is the priority. Your previous marriage no longer exists but the children and their well being is still at stake.

When tough parenting issues come up, make decisions based on what is best for the child. It is not about winning or losing. It is not about your ex getting their way or you getting your way. The goal is to raise the children in the best possible manner for the situation that you are all in at this time.

That will require sacrifice on your part at times. Just keep reminding yourself that what you are doing is for the greater good, which is keeping the interests of the children as the priority.

Do what’s best for the kids

With over 50% of all marriages ending in divorce, there are a great deal of children growing up in divorced households. It is up to parents to help their child cope with the divorce and process their emotions.

Sometimes professional help is in the best interest of the child. Be open to the possibility that your child may be best helped with professional help such as counseling or a support group. At the end of the day you need to be doing what is best for your child.

Working with the other parent also means that you need to keep your own emotional baggage about the other parent away from the eyes and ears of your child. Work with your ex to set up routines that keep the lives of your children consistent and stable for both households.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

More by this author

Dr. Magdalena Battles

A Doctor of Psychology with specialties include children, family relationships, domestic violence, and sexual assault

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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

Signs of Depression in Children (And How to Help Them to Overcome It)

Signs of Depression in Children (And How to Help Them to Overcome It)

Children, just like adults, can be depressed. Sometimes seemingly normal children with no major life issues can become depressed. It is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes clinical depression to occur. There are specific signs that you should recognize in your child if they are depressed. Getting them help and treatment is crucial to their mental wellness.

In this article, we will look into the signs of depression in children and how parents can help them to overcome it.

Signs of depression in children

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder) is the widely accepted instruction guide that professionals utilize for diagnosing mental disorders. The DSM characterizes a Major Depressive Episode as depressed behaviors that consistently last for two weeks or longer. Therefore, if your child has been “down in the dumps”, feeling hopeless or having sadness for more than two weeks, it should be cause for concern and investigated.

Below are signs of depression according to the DSM manual. The individual must have at least five of these behaviors present for a period of two weeks or longer to be officially diagnosed as having MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). Below is a summary/generalization from the DSM manual:

  • Feelings of deep sadness or depressed mood that last most of the day (for two weeks or more). For children they can present as irritable rather than sad.
  • Diminished interest in activities (again majority of the day or all the time).
  • Significant weight loss (not through dieting), or a decrease in appetite. In children, they fail to make expected weight gains while growing.
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
  • Either a slowing of psychomotor abilities/actions or an apparent agitation of these psychomotor abilities. This means that they either have moments that lack purpose and seem to be done because of agitation and tension or there is a significant slowness/retardation of their speech and physical actions.
  • Fatigue and loss of energy.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt every day.
  • Difficulty thinking, making decisions, or concentrating every day. This may be reflected in their grades.
  • Preoccupation with death and dying or suicidal thoughts.

Please note that if your child is suffering from the loss of a loved one and is processing through the stages of grief, it is normal to have these signs of depression. If they seem to be stuck in the depression stage, then it is time to pursue grief counseling to help them along in the grieving process.

However, if they are not suffering from a bereavement or a medical condition that would cause the above symptoms, then they should be taken to a professional for possible diagnosis and treatment of MDD (Major Depressive Disorder).

How to help your child with depression

Depression is not to be taken lightly. Especially if suicidal thoughts are present. The child’s feelings and emotions are real and must be taken seriously. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), suicide is the number two cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.[1]

Professional help is recommended if you believe your child fits the criterion for MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). You can take your child to their paediatrician for an evaluation and referral. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, they may benefit from medication such as anti-depressants.

Most professionals do not dispense medication as the first remedy for depression. Instead therapy is the first line of defense against depression, with medication being paired with therapy if the therapy is not enough or the symptoms are severe enough.

Testing

There are assessment tools that professionals can utilize to help in properly determining whether your child is depressed. The three tools used in assessing depression in children are:

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  • The Children’s Depression Rating Scale (CDRS)
  • Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI)
  • Clinical Global Impression (CGI)

Taking your child to a professional mental health counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist can help ensure proper testing and assessment occurs.

Therapy

There are many types of therapy available today. It is important to find a professional that specializes in childhood depression and the treatment of such.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the leading therapy methods in treating childhood depression. For younger children, play therapy is useful in treating childhood depression as children are often able to better communicate through play than conversation alone.

What parents can do at home to help their depressed child

Besides seeking for professional help, there are a couple of things that parents can do at home to help their depressed child:

1. Talk with your child about their feelings in a compassionate and empathetic manner.

It can feel high pressure to sit face to face and ask your child about their feelings. However, going on a walk, playing a board game or playing alongside your child (chose whichever is age appropriate for your child) can allow them to relax and open up about their feelings.

Ask your child open ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no to engage in more meaningful conversations. Never judge while they are being open and honest with you because it will inevitably cause them to shut down and move away from being open with you.

It is okay to allow for periods of silence during the conversations because sometimes the child is processing their thoughts and emotions during your time together. You don’t have to fill the space and entire time with talking as silence at times is helpful.

2. Provide activities that help them relax and de-stress.

For smaller children, there are simple ways to help them relax.

Provide play opportunities that they find relaxing such as coloring, painting, working with Play-do or clay, or playing with sand and sand toys. Again, find activities that interest your child and are age appropriate are helpful in making them relaxed.

3. Limit screen time.

Technology is not helpful in making your child less depressed. It can often be an escape that keeps them from further opening up about their feelings and emotions.

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Limit time in front of the TV, laptop, smart phone, video games and tablets, etc. Any electronics that seem to prevent your child from face to face interactions should be limited. Ask Dr. Sears cites that researchers have found kids who have higher levels of screen time are at greater risk for anxiety and depression.[2]

Provide alternate activities to replace the screen time such as hiking, crafting, drawing, constructing, biking and playing outside, etc. Some children may be so dependent on their screen time as their source for entertainment that they may need you to participate in alternate activities alongside them in order to get engaged in the activities.

You can’t simply tell your child to go outside to play if they are suffering from depression, lack friends and are used to sitting down and playing video games each day after school. Go outside with your child and do a nature hike or take your child to a playground and have fun together to get them engaged in these alternate activities.

4. Promote outdoor time and physical activities.

Encourage your children to take part in activities that especially involve nature such as nature hikes. Do these activities with them to help them engage in the activities. Again this is an opportunity for open conversations to occur and quality time to take place.

5. Help your child when problems and difficult tasks arise.

Assist them by helping them break down the task into smaller and more manageable parts. Children with depression often have difficulty taking on large problems and tasks and find them overwhelming. Helping them by breaking down the task into smaller and more manageable tasks will assist in helping raise their confidence when the small tasks are mastered.

Small tasks mastered lead to bigger tasks being mastered over time. It is a process over time, patience and a willingness to work alongside your child. This does not mean doing the task or taking on the problem solely yourself. Many times all the child needs is for you to break down the larger task into smaller more manageable tasks and for you to patiently talk your child through the completion of these smaller tasks.

6. Help your child reduce life stress.

When children are depressed, they have greater difficulty handling life activities in general. Cut back on activities that cause stress to increase and look for ways to help reduce stress in your child’s life.

7. Foster a positive home atmosphere.

Reduce or eliminate negative attitudes, language and conversations. Also avoid raised voices, passive aggressive behaviors and any form of physical violence in the home.

Make your home a safe haven for your child instead of an atmosphere that is ever volatile (in words, emotions or physically). Make it a calm environment that makes your child feel safe and secure mentally, emotionally and physically.

8. Help your child see the positive in life situations.

Point out the positives in a situation rather than the negatives. Help them see the bright side of any situation.

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Be a model of seeing the positive in life by speaking words that are uplifting, encouraging and positive. Resist the temptation to voice negative thoughts that come to mind as your child can feed off your emotions and words.

9. Believe your child when they talk about how they are feeling.

Listen to them patiently and take their words seriously. Do not discount or minimize their feelings. Express empathy and compassion when they do open up about their feelings. Help them utilize “I feel” statements in expressing their emotions.

10. Keep watch for suicidal behaviors.

Such behaviors include your child/teen researching this topic online, them giving away their possessions and a preoccupation with death.

Seek professional help immediately with the presentation of suicidal behaviors or thoughts. Keep this number on hand and use it when in doubt: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number 1-800-273-8255.

11. Keep all prescriptions, alcohol, drugs and weapons locked and away from children and teens.

This is a given for all children, but even more imperative for children who are depressed as they have an increased likelihood to abuse drugs and alcohol. They also have an increased likelihood to attempt suicide. So keep weapons and tools such as ropes and knives that can used for suicide out of the child’s ability to use.

12. Spend quality one-on-one time with your child.

Make the time during your day, every day, to spend quality time with your child. You may have limited time and cannot provide an hour or more a day to dedicate to one-on-one time with your child, but you should provide a minimum of 20 minutes a day with your child spending quality one-on-one time together. Try the suggested activities listed in point #3.

13. Be an encouragement and supporter of your child.

Show love and not frustration or anger because of the situation and your child’s condition. Help keep your attitude positive so your child can also see the positive.

Provide daily words of affirmation that are not based on end results (such as a grade or a win) but instead praise the effort they put forth. If you praise the outcome, they will be disappointed when their efforts don’t pan out. If they are praised for their efforts regardless of the outcome, their confidence is built based upon something that they can control (the effort they put into things).

14. Help your child to live a healthy lifestyle.

Sleep is a very important factor in your child’s mood. Not getting enough sleep can cause an entire day to be upset. According to Sleep Aid Resource, children between the ages of 3 and 18 need between 8 and 12 hours of sleep each night:[3]

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    Ensure your child is eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting physical activity/exercise daily and plenty of sleep time.

    15. Help your child foster positive relationships and friendships with their peers.

    Set up play dates for your younger child and encourage older children to invite friends over to your home.

    16. Talk about bullying.

    It can be one of the causes of your child’s depression, so discuss their life outside of home and their interactions with their peers. Help them recognize bullying and discuss how to handle bullying properly.

    17. Help your child follow the treatment plan outlined by their doctor, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

    Make sure you know the treatment plan that your child’s health care professional has outlined for child. This may include counseling session recommendations, medications and recommendations to follow through with in the home. Completing the plan will help provide optimal results for your child in the long run. A plan doesn’t work unless it is followed.

    18. Recognize that professional treatment takes time to show results.

    Don’t expect results for the first few weeks. It may take a month or longer, so be patient and understanding with your child.

    Depression in children is curable

    Depression in children can happen for a variety of reasons. It is quite treatable.

    Professional help is recommended if your child can possibly be diagnosed with a depressive episode. There are interventions that can be implemented in a professional setting, at home and at school. The key is having a plan of action to help your child.

    Ignoring the problem or hoping the depression will just go away is not a good plan. Treatment is imperative to curing depression in children.

    The first step is talking to your child’s paediatrician to get the ball rolling. He or she will refer you to specialists in your area that can help your child overcome and conquer their depression one day at a time. With you by their side, each step of the way you will get through it together and it is quite possible for your relationship with your child to be strengthened in the process as well. That can be your silver lining or positive outlook on the situation at hand.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] National Institute of Mental Health: Suicide
    [2] Ask Dr. Sears: It’s a Virtual World: Setting Practical Screen Time Limits
    [3] Sleep Aid Resource: Sleep Chart

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