SMILE (Divorce: Start Making It Livable for Everyone)


Larry M. Friedberg, Ph.D.

I guess the reason I’m here, rather than some other psychologist, or therapist, is that I’m a specialist on divorce.  I’ve worked with hundreds of couples, and maybe 1000 children during a divorce and after divorce.   I know that going through a divorce is a tough process.  Some of you are experiencing the greatest stresses of your lives.  Some are very worried about the future, feel angry, guilty, depressed, or lost.  

How Children React to Divorce

If divorce is hard for you, it is probably harder for your kids.  They don’t choose for their parents to get divorced. Believe me, the children in the SMILE video are not unusual.    

Going through a divorce can create painful feelings, memories and events, including interference in their relationship with one or both parents, with extended family and friends.

We know that divorce is a risk factor for a variety of psychological problems for children.  Research suggests that many children, but less than half, function more poorly in the period before the divorce and for a period of time thereafter.  In general, however, their functioning recovers over time.  

I think this is in part a reaction to the many changes your children, and you, are experiencing.  Also, this is probably near the low point of your relationship with one another and your behavior in front of your children.  Older kids tell me that their parents get  temporarily crazy during the divorce.  You are likely to feel better later, and your relationship, as parents, is likely to improve. But if the conflict between parents stays high, your child’s adjustment is much less likely to recover.

I will now talk about some common short-term problems that children experience during and after a divorce, so you can recognize your child’s distress, if it occurs, and try to support your child.  If you are not succeeding, get some professional help, whether through your school district, church or private counselor.

It is best to look at children’s responses in terms of their developmental level:

Infants and toddlers obviously don’t understand the divorce, but even very young infants can react strongly to changes in their schedule or to changes in their parents’ moods, behavior, or availability.

All of these stressors may lead to increases in fussiness or crying, clinging, or even regression to earlier levels of development such as crawling instead of walking, or wanting a bottle if they have been weaned to a cup.  They may be more distressed at separations, like going to daycare.  They are also likely to sense tension when you exchange them with one another, in addition to showing separation anxiety.

Preschoolers can share younger children’s problems coping with separation from one of their parents. Tantrums, whining, sadness or aggressiveness can also show that your preschooler is under stress.  

Young children, from older preschoolers to early school age children, are egocentric;  that is, they experience themselves as the center of the universe.  If good things happen, its because they have been good;  if there are bad experiences, they often feel that they are to blame.  Such children may blame themselves for the divorce, and feel guilty.  Or, they may try to be extra “good” in order to bring the parents get back together.  As at younger ages, children are likely to regress to behavior from a safer time in their lives.

It is a common finding that little boys can become aggressive in the early period after the divorce.  Little girls are more likely to keep their feelings about the divorce inside.  

Children ages nine to twelve are more likely to try to figure out who was to blame for the divorce; and they are more likely to take sides in any arguments between the two of you.  They see conflicts in “good guy” ,“bad guy” terms.   Increases in anger towards one or both parent, trouble in school or with peers, anxiety, withdrawal or somatic symptoms may be signs of difficulty coping with the family situation

Adolescence is a difficult transition even in the best of circumstances.  Adolescents question their parents while trying to fit in with their peers, and they have to handle a variety of new temptations and fears.  Some rebellion is normal for many adolescents.

Divorce exposes your weaknesses or failings to your adolescent.   At a time when the teen is trying to master new and intense emotions and impulses, to see his or her parents losing control over their emotions or acting innapropriately is a particularly difficult challenge.  And he or she is too often pushed to choose between their parents.

In addition to all the problems shown in earlier years, adolescents can act out in more ways, including aggressive, sexual or even criminal behavior.

As I said before, most children can cope with their parents’ divorce, after a period of stress adjustment.  Only about 11 percent of kids whose parents divorce show measurable psychological problems, as compared with 8% of kids whose parents don’t divorce.

Resilience and coping, therefore are the normal response to divorce, not permanent psychological dysfunction.  

The great majority of children of divorce end up without disabling adjustment problems.  The bad news is that the presence of divorce leads to a modest increase in such problems.

What determines the impact of the divorce on your children?  Here are some things over which you have control:

  1. First, the quality of the children’s relationship with you, especially if you are a primary residential parent;  Quality means warmth, listening, and firm but loving discipline.
  2. Second, freedom from being exposed to conflict between the parents, and not being put in the middle of the parents’ disputes;   That means not sabotaging the children’s relationship with the other parent, not using the children as messengers or spies, not arguing in front of them or speaking badly about the other parent.  It also means not pressuring the child to become your ally against the other parent.
  3. Third, children’s contact and the  quality of their relationship with the non-residential parent.  
  4. Fourth, your health and emotional well-being.  It is critically important that you take care of yourself.  Bitter, unhappy or ill parents have much less to give.

Many researchers and clinicians feel that the post-divorce relationship between the parents is the key factor in protecting the children from negative effects of divorce. 

Most important, its not how angry you are at the other parent, but how you express it:  is the anger something you are open about in front of your children?  How long do you stay angry after the divorce is settled?  Do you discuss your grievances with your children, or with others in front of your children?  Do you directly or indirectly ask for their sympathy or say things which might make them mad at the other parent?  Do you place them in a conflict of loyalty?  Do you interrogate them about what happens at the other parent’s house, and sympathize with anything negative they say?  Do you use them as spies, to get information about the other parent?  Do you compete for their love?

So divorce is a challenge to all children.  Even children who end up normal report that more often than not, there were significant painful experiences resulting from the divorce which had a big impact on them.

WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR CHILDREN, YOU HAVE CHOICE:  You can make the effort to put your children’s needs ahead of your own. You can put aside your feelings about your ex-spouse in favor of your children’s feelings.

Or, you can use your children to serve your needs for revenge and control over your former spouse.


Many parents express concern about how to talk with their children about the divorce.  Some of you have talked to your children already, and talking about this is likely to be a continuing issue, but lets focus on the first talk:

What are the goal for this conversation?:

  1. First to calm the children’s fears
  2. Second, to rebuild their trust
  3. Third, to keep them out of the middle of your problems

What are Do’s and Don’ts for these discussions?


  • Gather your children together, with both mom and dad present, so that the children can see you united in attempting to help them
  • Reassure your children that you both love them and will always love them and take care of them, no matter what happens between the two of you
  • Listen to your children as you comfort them.
    • Reassure them that they are not to blame for your problems.  
    • Help them to express their feelings and questions about the divorce, and to understand that everything will be ok. Listen to them.  
    • Younger school age children may be most concerned about concrete details like where they will stay, etc.  If you don’t yet know the answers to their questions, reassure them that this information will come.  
    • Older children may want lots of details of why there is a divorce- an agreed upon answer that does not get into details about your marital difficulties, and does not blame either parent, is best
  • Reassure them that they will still have a family, still have a mom and dad, but now in two homes instead of one


  • Give unnecessary details about why the marriage is ending
  • Don’t blame or disparage the other parent, or try to turn the children against them.  
  • Don’t rely on your children for your own emotional support, or use them as your sounding board or best friend. They lack the emotional maturity to handle your problems, and they are likely to be frightened or confused by your problems.  They are looking to you for support.  

It is important to help your children to open up and talk about their feelings at this time


  • Be open in listening to your children, and let them know it is ok to have feelings and to be confused.  Listening is even more important than explaining or reassuring.
  • It is ok to let them know that you feel confused or worried, sometimes, to encourage them to talk.  But don’t lay it on too thick.  Kids need a sense of hope about the future, and a sense that their parents are strong. 


  • Put your child off when he or she wants to talk. They may keep things inside and then all of a sudden need your attention.  Stop what your are doing and listen.
  • Don’t dismiss or minimize your children’s feelings.  They may interpret this as meaning that you really don’t want them to talk or that it is wrong to feel that way.

We know that we are asking you to help your children at a time when you may feel like an emotional wreck. You’re going to have to overcome, for their sake.  


  • what you need to get support- from friends and professionals, and to meet your other emotional needs.  Join a divorce support group, get into therapy, exercise, don’t neglect your physical health.  


  • Allow yourself to slip into a downward spiral.  Your children don’t need a martyr.  They’re looking to you for help, stability, and hope
  • When you begin to date, don’t expose your children to casual relationships.  And give them time to adjust to the divorce before introducing a potential partner, then take it slow, to allow them to adjust.

Right now the level of conflict between you is most likely high.  As you get distance from the pain and anger of your marriage, you need to let go of your problems, to close the book of your marriage. But there is another book that continues, your relationship as parents of your children.

I like to describe a successful post-divorce relationship between parents as a business relationship, as contrasted with a romantic relationship.  In business or professional life, it doesn’t matter that much how you feel about the people you deal with, your customers, clients, supervisors, etc.  You can be friends with them, or not like them personally, but that is not is what important.  

What is important is the business you need to conduct.  The most important business you will ever run is that of raising your children.  What is the goal?  Healthy children.  Raising healthy children takes two parents, and it can be ruined by holding onto grudges. 

Moving from a conflicted, intense or hostile relationship to a detached, business-like exchange can’t be done instantly.  What is needed is to create a conflict-free zone around the children.  Remember:

  1. Your children’s perception of your former spouse is likely to be very different from your own.  They have a different relationship and different needs with regard to their other parent.  It is not necessary nor helpful for them to see that person the way you do.  
  2. Your children’s well-being is more important than your anger at the other parent. You can get revenge by hurting their relationship with the other parent, but this is likely to hurt your children
  3. Remember that your child needs and deserves to have the best of both parents.

So here’s some do’s and Don’ts for creating a conflict-free zone:


  • Decide to contain your feelings about your ex enough so that you can separate your feelings about the other parent from their role in your children’s lives.
  • Protect the children from you disputes.  
  • Do allow your child to keep photos and keepsakes related to the other parent.  Allow them to speak about their positive feelings about the other parent, and if they wish, to tell you about positive experiences with the other parent.  Do not spoil this opportunity to support your child with negative comments or nasty looks.
  • Do encourage the other parent to stay involved in the children’s school and other activities
  • Do write, call, fax, etc. your children when you are not with them for extended periods of time.
  • Do encourage your children to work out their differences with the other parent, if they occur, rather than interceding all the time.  Listen to your children, but don’t use this as an opportunity for fighting with the other parent.  Get involved only when absolutely necessary.  


  • Put your children in the middle.
  • Try to dictate the parenting style of the other parent.  One of the difficult aspects of divorce is that you have little say over what happens at the other household.  If you have a concern, respect the right of the other parent to make decisions and try to be helpful and constructive in expressing disagreements.  Help your child to accept differences between the two households.

The exchange of children between their parents is the most frequent contact you may have with your ex-spouse.  It is also the most likely time for conflicts to erupt into arguments.

This is also the time when kids are most likely to fuss about having to be passed back and forth between two homes.  (Who would choose to interrupted in whatever they are doing to satisfy their parents schedule?)  

You may feel vindicated when your child resists or refuses to be taken to your ex.  (It is tempting to think that your child has finally figured out what a miserable person your ex really is.)

But children are not adults, and their relationships with their parents are unlike your relationship with your ex.  It is more likely that this behavior is caused by one of the following factors:

  1. The child senses tension, conflict and anxiety between his or her parents, and may fear that an incident may occur
  2. They may refuse to go in order to please you.  You may be directly or indirectly communicating that you don’t want them to go, are anxious about their going, or want them to say they don’t want to go.
  3. Finally, children don’t enjoy being made to interrupt their activities for adults’ sakes.  They may be tired, or for some other reason want to stay where they are.

The court order for parenting time is not something to be dismissed or taken lightly.  The court and friend of the court will insist that the children be present at the designated time according to the parenting schedule.

Here are do’s and don’ts for the exchange:


  1. Don’t discuss disagreements the other parent at the exchange. Use the telephone or other means of communication about adult issues.
  2. Don’t discuss child support in front of the children
  3. Do not display animosity towards the children’s other parent at the time of exchange
  4. Do not use foul language, dirty looks, or aggressive gestures
  5. If you feel that the other parent has violated these rules, keep your cool. Don’t increase your children’s stress by responding in kind


  1. Count to ten, and take a deep breath if you feel stress, and promise yourself to keep civil
  2. Use other means than talking at exchanges to share information.  Send emails, fax or mail notes, or make phone calls when the children are at sleep or in school.
  3. If it is not possible for you or the other person to control themselves, make alternative plans for the exchange such as having another person make the exchange for you, or exchange the children in a public place.  You can also arrange exchanges in which you don’t meet the other person, by dropping off or picking up the children from school or daycare.
  4. Make sure the children are ready at the time of exchange and make sure the children are returned at the designated time.
  5. Make sure the children have what they need for parenting time with their other parent.  Make sure that what they brought with them is returned
  6. Have an agreed-upon procedure for contacting the other parent in the case of an emergency.

More generally:

  1. Do not talk to family and friends in a negative way about the other parent in front of the children
  2. Do not allow your family to disparage the children’s other parent in front of the children
  3. Don’t quiz your children about their activities with the other parent when they return home from parenting time
  4. Don’t discuss financial matters such as child support with your children
  5. Do not use your children as messengers, to substitute for you communicating with their other parent

Make sure that you have detailed co-parenting plan that spells out as many issues as possible, including:

Parenting time during the school year, holiday sharing, vacations, special events, transportation, telephone calls, sharing information and problem solving.

The plan should take into consideration everyone’s activities, including the children.  Have a very specific agreement should limit conflict to a great degree.

In the spirit of making your children’s lives predictable and understandable the schedule should be upheld with the greatest respect.  This schedule is a legal document, and changes should be made by mutual agreement only, unless you get the Friend of the Court or the court involved.

If you need help devising a parenting plan, you may seek the help of an impartial third party. Your Family Counselor with the Friend of the Court is trained and experienced in mediating parenting plans, and can help you at no cost. Private mediation is also available from a number of trained professionals in Oakland County.

This presentation is intended as introduction and roadmap to a healthy outcome for your children from your divorce.  If you get lost along the way, get professional help to enable you to face the challenges you experience.

Many parents will benefit from therapy to help them resolve their feelings about the divorce.  Your marriage is a chapter in your life which is now ending.  Go to the next chapter;  don’t get stuck in the old one.  

(By getting a divorce at least one of you is saying that you cant solve many problems.  A divorce puts those problems in the past.  Unresolved anger about those problems is a fuel for post-divorce conflict and difficulties in your own emotional adjustment and that of your children).

You must make efforts on the part of your children to help them move through this crisis in their lives and come out the other end unscathed.  It can be done:

First, be the best parent you can for your children.

Second, allow the other parent to give all they can to your children.

Set an example of hope and stability.  Be a role model.  Teach your children how to relate to others in a constructive fashion.  Do you want your children to learn bitterness, revenge, martyrdom, manipulation and sabotage?  Or do you want them to learn to get along with others, in good and not so good contexts?