The stress of a divorce can manifest differently in children, just as it does in adults, and your kids will naturally experience some anxiety during this tough transition.
Age can be a factor in how they handle the stress. They may have big concerns about changing residences or schools, or how the holidays will change with two households—and anxiety around everyday stressors like test-taking can be exacerbated during this time.
The good news is there are ways that you can help relieve the pressure and help remove some of your child’s post-divorce anxiety.
Ways to Ease Post-Divorce Anxiety in Kids
Get Your Kids Moving
Encourage the same stress fighting activities in your children that you need for yourself. Make sure your kids are getting regular physical exercise, which gives them physiological benefits such as an endorphin boost and reduced anxiety.
Regularly participating in an after-school or community sports program or dance class can help kids get their minds off the divorce or other situational stressors that cause anxiety. Regular exercise doesn’t need to be expensive – you and your child can take walks or go running together, or even try out instructional YouTube videos on aerobic activities like Zumba or cardio kickboxing.
Spending that time together also is a great way to check-in with your child and offer the opportunity to talk about what’s causing them anxiety.
Test Time Can Trigger More Anxiety
The stress of a divorce can exacerbate the performance anxiety around testing that many children already have. Fear of failure can weigh on them heavily, particularly during a time when they may worry more about disappointing you.
Tests with higher stakes, such as final exams, can be even worse. Preparation is key. Talk with your kids and make sure you’re not making some of the most common mistakes on test day, such as not carefully reading directions. Prepping your kids before test day will help get them in the right mindset, as will a good night’s sleep and a decent breakfast.
Let them know your expectations are reasonable and that you’ll love them even if they fail. Knowing you’re there to support them will help ease the pressure.
Walk Through the Changes
If your divorce involves shared custody, your child may have some anxiety over living in two places. They may be getting used to a new room, a new house, or a new neighborhood in addition to the major changes in the family structure.
Whenever possible, involve your child in discussions about the new living arrangements. Let them help decorate their new bedroom, whether it’s choosing a new comforter or a paint color to help make it their own.
Ensure they have some familiar things in the new space, either permanently or in a bag that travels from place to place. Eventually, staying in both places will become a new kind of stability, especially when you help create a sense of normalcy and routine.
Keep a Lid on Conflict
Even the most civil of marital breakups has its moments where the soon-to-be-ex-spouses can’t agree. Even without arguing, the tension can be palpable. If you need to have it out with your ex, do your best to take the discussion out of view of your kids.
Never use your child as a go-between or an emissary. Parental conflict can make a child feel caught in the middle, and anxiety increases. Even parents who stay together can cause a great deal of anxiety in their kids if they display a lot of conflict, so take heart in knowing that even with the divorce, you can make things easier by keeping conflict out of view.
If conflict is unavoidable, be sure to give your children lots of emotional support following any confrontations.
Talk It Out
Sometimes kids might be afraid to talk about how the divorce is making them feel for fear of making things worse or causing you trouble. Be sure they know your door is open, and that they know their well-being is a top priority for you.
Ensure they understand that the divorce is not their fault—kids may internalize perceived actions and reactions, and feel guilty over the breakup. Let them know it’s okay to have a lot of different feelings, even positive ones, and help them articulate what they feel.
Their anxiety will lessen if they know it’s not wrong to feel or not feel a certain way, whatever that may be. They may have a lot of questions, and you should try to be prepared for ones about where they’ll live and how the divorce may impact their routine, even if the answer is “I don’t know yet.” You can assure them that you and your ex-spouse are working on all of the answers for them.
Divorce is highly disruptive to a child’s sense of stability, and assuring them you want to keep it as least disruptive as possible can help them regain some footing. Knowing that you’re a constant support in their lives can help them get through times when anxiety seems to grow.