Supporting Young Children During Divorce

February 22, 2024

In my work in the family counseling setting, I have learned some valuable tips in helping children navigate divorce. Sharing the news with children is never easy. Most parents have shared with me that it is one of the most difficult days of their lives. I often meet with parents who are looking for extra support for their children in this challenging time. Depending on age, there are different ways to support young children during this transition. 

Play Therapy

I have found play therapy to be quite helpful with younger children. The sand tray is a great way to help children express themselves through play. It also gives the therapist a developmentally appropriate way to communicate with the child. Watching a child build a world and share what they are creating helps build self-esteem, independence and expression. Repeating what the child says during play is a developmentally appropriate way to communicate with them that you hear and empathize with what they are expressing. Building alongside them gives them a sense of community, ownership, creativity and freedom to express.

Some of the play can be more directive as well. Using art therapy, doll houses and figurines can help illustrate these new family dynamics. This is helpful especially when the activity is repeated in following sessions to establish a sense of routine as well as support the new family dynamic. For children who are going to start transitioning between homes, it is a safe way to incorporate into play, two safe and loving homes. It is a good time to outline what will stay constant in their lives like school and caregivers. To play along these lines helps build safety for the child. The goal is to help the child learn that although their world is going to change, they are still loved and cared for. This type of therapy also gives children a safe place to ask the hard questions. 

Parent Sessions

Not all separations look alike. Some families have a more contentious dynamic at play. Counseling for the parent and the child is beneficial.  Co-parenting sessions in both amicable and contentious families is important. I have found that parents regardless of their situation can agree on one thing; “we want our child to be happy and healthy.” I like to coach parents to not add any emotional rocks into their child’s backpack. They are already navigating their new world and it is key to support them in positive ways. Things to be aware of include oversharing, arguing, having grown up discussions within ear shot, and other behaviors that we may not realize are weighing down that backpack. Some behaviors to look out for in the child may be stomachaches, separation anxiety, bed wetting/accidents, anxiety and other behavior changes. 

In counseling with children, I like to explore what I call big behaviors and big feelings. It is helpful for children to be able to identify what they are feeling and even learn some of the signs that lead to unwanted behaviors.  For example, identifying when their cheeks feel hot, their heart beats faster or their breathing feels different. Having the words to tell a loved one that they are feeling mad, sad or worried is a healthy way to lighten their backpack so to speak. Learning strategies to self soothe or seek the space that they may need include breathing techniques, counting techniques and relaxation techniques. Skills that can help them in all aspects of life. I hope that you can find the right fit to support yourself and your child through this life change. 

Other Tips: 

Transitions: Transitions between homes are easiest when the exchange is a school pickup/drop off. This helps avoid the emotional goodbyes.

Personal Items: Having personal items at both homes. Making sure that special blanket/teddy makes the transition. Maybe have a lovey at both homes.

Routine: Trying to keep similar schedules at both homes i.e., bedtime, screentime, activities

Talk: Check in with your child. Ask how they are doing, feeling and if they have any questions. 

Written By: Jenny Cantu, LPC, Licensed Professional Counselor


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