How to help your child find their emotional footing after a divorce earthquake

July 16th, 2019
Family break-ups, separation and divorce are usually a sad, stressful and painful experience for everyone involved. It is a roller coaster with many changes and adjustments to have to contend with. There is evidence that suggests that the period of adjustment for families can range anywhere from 1 to 3 years. It is therefore understandable that both parents and children may each be experiencing a wide range of emotions at any given point in time.  

How children tend to adjust and cope with parental separation is influenced by a range of factors. These include their age and stage of development; the level of support they receive from their parents, family and friends; their natural resilience; the level of tension and conflict between parents that they are directly or indirectly exposed to; and the adults abilities to parent effectively in amidst their own grief and distress. 

What can parents do to help their children during this emotionally difficult period? 

It can be devastating, at any age, to witness the dissolution of your parent’s relationship and the breakup of the family. Many a child I have seen in a therapeutic setting has likened it to an earthquake, where their world shakes and shimmies and is turned upside down. As they navigate this confusing, unsettled times of change, your children will look to you, their parent, for love, support and guidance like never before. Be prepared for some limit and patience testing as your child grieves their loss – the loss of daily access to a parent, the loss of the family unit, or simply the loss of the life they knew.  

During such a difficult emotional period here are seven ways you can help her your children grieve their loss and find their emotional footing after a ‘divorce earthquake’: 

 1. Provide as much stability and consistency as possible. 

To help your children adjust to the emotional changes within your family, it is important you and your ex-partner do your best to maintain a level of consistency with structure, rules and routine across both homes.  

Consistent limit setting, clear rules and predictable routines around bed times, meal times, wake up times etc., helps children to know what to expect, which in turn helps them feel calmer, secure, and a little more in control. Knowing that irrespective of which home they are in, dinner time is followed by a bath and then a book before bed, for example, can set a young child’s mind at ease. It ensures that children aren’t spending all their energy trying to guess what is about to happen next in their daily lives, meaning they have more emotional resources to deal with the big changes that inevitably following divorce. 

 2. Provide lots of reassurance. Lots of it. 

In the wake of divorce children often question how much their parents love them. It is extremely important to reassure children that divorce is a relational matter between two parents, and not between parents and their children. Reassure them of your feelings for them and regularly tell them that you love them. Let them know that both of their parents will continue to care for them and have an ongoing involvement in their day to day lives.  

Regardless of a child’s age, it is also a natural response for them to look for reasons why parents’ divorce. As children search for answers, one place they may look is inward. Because of this it’s important to reassure them that the break-up has nothing to do with them or their behaviour nor is not their responsibility to “fix” their parents’ relationship. 

3. Use books to encourage conversations about feelings and divorce. 

Stories and books about separation and divorce are a great way to help children to work through the issues (and the feelings) they face when parents separate. Picture books, like Max’s Divorce Earthquake, are not only a great way to teach your child about emotions but can also give children a way to express their emotions and discuss issues that they may not otherwise be comfortable talking about. 

Reading appropriate books with children can help them learn how to recognize other people’s feelings through facial expressions and behaviour. They can provide assurances that uncomfortable feelings are something that everybody experiences at some point in time and that other children have likely felt exactly the same way when their parents separated, and their family changed. They can also help you to better understand your child’s personal experiences of divorce. 

 4. Build your child’s emotional vocabulary. 

One helpful way of dealing with difficult or uncomfortable emotions is to name them. Being able to accurately name feelings is the first step in helping children to identify them. You can help your child develop this ability by talking about feelings in everyday conversations and by reading out loud with them. Stories and picture books are a great way to expose young children to feeling words, helping them to build their emotional vocabulary, enabling them to talk more easily about their feelings. 

5. Help them express their feelings verbally.  

It’s completely normal for children to have difficulty verbally expressing their feelings. In an emotionally challenging period it unfortunately won’t be as obvious as your child saying “this is hard for me. I don’t want this to happen and I’m not feeling okay about any of this”. Your children’s feelings will more often than not come out in their behaviour. They will show up through testing limits, even more emotional moments, refusal to cooperate with simple requests and there may be even meltdowns over seemingly small things.  

You can help your children learn how to express their feelings in a more positive way by noticing their moods and their behaviour and, assisting them to join the dots. For example, when faced with a child who is upset about their first birthday post separation, you might say, "The way that you’re trying so hard not to cry, and looking down at the ground suggests to me that perhaps you are feeling sad that this year your Dad and I are going to celebrate your birthday separately” or with a child who repeatedly asks to spend time with their parents together,  “the look on your face and the way you are clenching your hands suggests to me that maybe you are feeling angry and upset that your request for us all to spend family time together can’t happen”. Being as specific and concrete as possible will help your child to identify the signs of anger, sadness, excitement etc. and, eventually, how to express them in socially acceptable ways.  

 6. Listen to your kids talk about feelings. 

The ability to talk freely about emotions not only helps children better cope with uncomfortable emotions but also gives them far greater power to express affection and concern, and to ask for, and receive, affection. It also gives them the ability to engage in healthy discussions with those that care for them, about what is happening for, and around, them. 

Encourage your children to talk about and share, their feelings and really listen to them. Give them your full attention and stay present in the conversation, even if it's difficult for you to hear what they have to say. Be open to hearing negative and positive thoughts. Be sensitive to your children's fears. Reflecting back what you think your child is feeling also gives you the chance to explore and understand their feelings better. You can say things like, “I hear you tell me that how sad you were at having to say goodbye to dad this morning” or “I understand it feels lonely without mum here”.  If you get it right, they will likely nod their head, calm down, or elaborate further, feeling safer to share their experience with you. If you get it wrong, you will get more information in their effort to get you to get it! 

Seeing you also express your feelings in a calm and healthy way, is another way to encourage conversation and sends your children the message that it’s okay for them to do this too. 

 7. Accept your children’s feelings and emotional responses – whatever they may be. 

Anger, anxiety, sadness, relief, guilt and other uncomfortable feelings are unavoidable and also completely ordinary and healthy in circumstances where parents have separated. There is no right or wrong way to feel when your mum and dad now live in different places. It is important to allow your children time to grieve the loss of the family as they knew it. Just because it might be difficult for you to hear or to see you child upset, don’t push aside the negative or uncomfortable feelings or force positivity by telling them all the ‘good’ things that might happen as a result of the divorce e.g. they will get two birthdays, two Christmas’s etc. 

Through your words and actions, send your children the message that it’s fine (and that you’re okay) for them some days to feel excited or relieved, and other days scared or angry or sad. After all, feelings tend to come and go and the way they feel today may be different to how they feel next week, or the week after that.  

Do your best to acknowledge their feelings, validate their experiences and, if possible, gently redirect their attention. For example: “We can all feel upset and worried sometimes, especially when so much is changing. It’s understandable that you are feeling this way. Lots of kids in your situation would feel exactly like you. Do you think perhaps a hug might help or would you like to draw a picture to give to mummy when she comes to pick you up in the morning?”. 

You may not agree that your child’s feeling reflects the facts or the nature of the situation. But try to acknowledge and accept their feelings (whatever they may be) without judging them. If possible, just simply be with them in that emotional space until it passes (which it will). Resist also the urge tell them how they should or shouldn’t feel about the divorce and their changed family circumstances. When feelings are minimised or dismissed, they will often be expressed in unhealthy ways. 

If needed, ask for help. 

Rest assured that it is normal for kids to feel a range of difficult emotions in response to divorce and the changes that follow. But with time, care and support, most children heal and adjust. If, however, you are worried about how your children are adjusting to their changed family circumstances talk to other people who see them regularly – their teacher or childcare staff and don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. 

Cheat Sheet - How to help your child find their emotional footing after a divorce earthquake. 
  • Give children space and time to grieve their family as they knew it.  
  • Kids feel calmer and more secure when they know what to expect next. So where possible maintain consistent and predictable routines. 
  • Regularly reassure your child of your feelings for them and tell them that you love them. 
  • Encourage your children to talk about and share, their feelings and really listen to them – even if it’s difficult for you to hear what they have to say. 
  • Reassure your children there is no right or wrong way to feel and that all feelings are valid. 
  • You may not agree that your child’s feeling reflects the facts or the nature of the situation but try to acknowledge and accept your child’s feelings (whatever they may be) without judging them. 
  • Resist the urge to “fix” your child’s feelings or tell them how they should or shouldn’t feel.  
  • Help children find the words for their feelings by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk. 
  • Read books together about children and separation and divorce to encourage conversation and build emotional literacy. 
  • Be aware of your own emotions and not to project your own feelings about the divorce or your ex-partner onto your children.  

Rachel Brace is the author of the children's book 'Max's Divorce Earthquake'. She is a registered psychologist and co-creator and founder of SteppingThrough an educational and support web-based resource for stepparents and their partners. Rachel has worked extensively with children and families over many years, across a variety of settings in New Zealand, United Kingdom and Australia.

Currently, Rachel consults privately from The Relationspace in Sydney’s CBD to families on issues relating to separation and divorce, family conflict, post separation parenting, co-parenting and stepfamily living. She provides crucial support and guidance not only to children, young people and their parents, but to lawyers, judges and others who are often on the front lines of family break down.

Rachel enjoys reading and believes that books can be a tremendous help in explaining significant life events such as divorce and separation to children and in supporting children as they confront (and cope with) challenges in their daily life. This belief combined with her professional expertise as a psychologist is what inspires her to write stories that help encourage awareness in children and in adults of the emotions children might feel when changes happen in their family as a result of things like divorce or a parent re-partnering. 

You can also find Rachel on Instagram @kinshipbooks

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Tags: children, divorce, parenting, psychology

Comments (1)

Chloe Joyce - February 21st, 2020 5:22am
Hi Rachel,

Thank you for creating this website I have stumbled across it in my search for resources. I am also a psychologist (a new grad) and find it so helpful when I find pages like this. I will be ordering your book and look forward to reading it and using it in therapy.




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