Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Parenting during divorce

1/25/2021 by Hannah Mulholland, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W.


A divorce is never something you anticipate or want to go through. It becomes even more complicated and difficult if you are a parent. 

There is so much to sort through, details to decide and changes to make. Your children may seem like they are coping well with the situation or you may notice significant struggles. 

Learn more in this Q&A about parenting through a divorce:

When should I tell my kids?

It's likely that your children have picked up that something is not right. If they come to you with questions, be as honest and age-appropriate as possible. However, it's best not to share about a separation or divorce until the decision is final. 

It's developmentally appropriate for children to be concrete in their thinking, so understanding ambiguity or gray areas in a relationship is often difficult for younger children.

How should I tell my kids?

Ideally, parents should have this conversation together and plan in advance to make sure they are on the same page. Presenting a united front can be reassuring for kids. It sends the message that, although their family is changing, both parents are still working together to take care of them.

Keep the conversation simple and straightforward. Reassure your child that you love him or her, that you will always be his or her parents, and that the divorce is not his or her fault. 

Do not comment on anything related to extramarital affairs, finances or any other age-inappropriate details. Also, be careful to avoid the temptation to criticize, insult, or blame the other parent. 

It's important to tell your children that this is hard, and it's OK to be sad, angry or upset.

How do children of divorced parents feel?

In a major life change such as divorce, children experience a variety of emotions. There's no right way to feel or go through it. 

Some children experience grief and sadness. Some express anger and resentment. Others are relieved. 

You might be surprised at how quickly your child adapts to the new normal. Remember, your child's emotional response may be different toward each parent. What's key is using validation and empathy to let your child know that all feelings are OK.

How do we decide custody time?

The most important part of deciding on parenting and custody time is taking your child's development into account. Ask yourself how you can make the schedule most conducive to school and extracurricular activities. 

Keep in mind that it will be hard to give up your child to the other parent for any amount of time, but that in most situations ― assuming there are no concerns about safety ― it's vital to his or her growth and development to have a relationship with both of you. 

The more consistent you make the schedule, the better. That way, your child always knows when he or she will be where. It is helpful to create a calendar that your child can refer to.

How do we co-parent from two houses?

Communication is essential. Find the communication method that works best for you, perhaps through text messages or email if verbal conversations are hard. Make sure the communication is direct between the two of you, and not sent back and forth through your child.

When your child is struggling with something, make sure to share that information with the other parent. Both of you should try to attend all medical appointments and school conferences, so that everyone has the same information.

When talking with your child, don't act jealous or upset about the time your child spends with the other parent or ask what he or she does together with the other parent. This isn't a competition. Don't discuss finances or negative attributes of the other parent with your child. 

As you co-parent during a divorce, remember to take care of yourself and get support if you need it. The better you deal with your feelings, the better your child will be able to deal with his or hers.

How do I start dating again?

This is an important conversation to have with your child. Discuss why you would date and what you are looking for in a partner. 

Try to introduce significant others only when the relationship is more than casual, so you're not bringing many new people in and out of your child's life.Remember that children typically are fairly concrete, so the gray areas that characterize many adult dating relationships can be hard for children to understand. 

Once you've met someone who likely will be a steady presence in you and your child's life, help your child become part of the relationship through family dates and quality time together. However, make sure your child knows that he or she is still important to you and deserves one-on-one time with you.Validate your child's feelings about your dating, recognizing all children will handle this change differently.

How will I know if my child isn't coping well with the divorce?

If you see changes in schoolwork, friendships, behavior or mood, your child may be struggling to manage the change. If your child shows a consistent increase in irritability, sleeping difficulties, toileting or eating problems, then try talking with him or her about how he or she feels about the divorce. Your care team can be an excellent resource when you have concerns about how your child is coping with a divorce.

Hannah Mulholland, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W., is a clinical social worker serving children and adolescents in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Integrated Behavioral Health.