Helping Children Cope with Divorce and Blended Families

Helping Children Cope with Divorce and Blended Families

The stability and health of a child’s nuclear family unit can have a fundamental influence on their emotional well-being. Oftentimes, parents do everything in their power to protect this however, divorce is a reality that many families have to endure. The American Psychological Association estimates that the approximate divorce rate in the United States currently ranges between 40-50%.*

As a parent, navigating the grief, pain, and emotional hardships that come with divorce can feel extremely challenging. Carrying the responsibility of your child’s emotional response, fears, and uncertainties through divorce while in the midst of grieving yourself can be especially devastating. Divorce is a challenging journey for families, and children often bear a unique emotional burden during this transition. Understanding and addressing the impact that it has on children is crucial for fostering resilience and facilitating healthy adjustments to the establishment of a new family system. 

Common Challenges for Children

Children experiencing their parents' divorce often face a myriad of emotional and psychological challenges. While developmental ages and stages can largely impact how a child copes with divorce, universal challenges that often present include:

  • Emotional Turmoil: The psychological impact of coping with divorce as a child can lead to them feeling flooded with a variety of difficult emotions. The disruption of the family unit can trigger feelings of confusion, sadness, frustration, and anxiety as they grapple with shifting family dynamics. Parents can best support their children by inviting open dialogue about how they are processing the divorce. Parents should practice active listening and validation when their child feels safe enough to vulnerably share how they are feeling. Parents may empathize with their children by acknowledging that they are sharing some of these same feelings as well to help normalize them.

  • Behavioral Challenges: Children may show an increase in irritability, meltdowns, defiance, and argumentative behavior in response to parental divorce.  This can be attributed to children trying to learn to adapt and tolerate increased distress and chaos in their home environment. Parents need to remember the underlying emotions that are the functions of external behaviors. Parents should do their best to respond with compassion, empathy, and patience rather than consequences during this time. Divorce is a form of separation that leads to an attachment disruption for children. To continue to maintain a sense of secure attachment both parents must provide reassurance that they will continue to be able to tend to their child’s needs, provide love, and care for them. 

  • Uncertainty about the Future: Children thrive with predictability and often struggle with ambivalence. The unknown aspects of how their lives will change post-divorce can contribute to heightened stress. Parents can mitigate this by trying their best to inform their children of upcoming changes. One of the primary uncertainties children have following divorce is how they will split their time in two homes. Establishing a set routine for this and having a calendar that the child can utilize to track their days can help them feel more organized. 

  • Changes in Living Arrangements: Adjusting to new living situations and routines can be disorienting and emotionally challenging. Oftentimes children are uprooted from what they have been used to their whole life and are required to transition to new ways of living. This may require them to move to new neighborhoods, homes, and schools. Creating a family story can be a helpful tool to help your child understand and process these big changes. Parents can create an age-appropriate narrative that acknowledges the divorce and focuses on providing clarity on what their future will look like. 

  • Potential Parental Conflict: Witnessing conflicts between parents, whether subtle or overt, can feel emotionally overwhelming for children. There is a plethora of research that has shown that children who witness contention between parents during high-conflict divorce experience adverse outcomes in regard to their mental health.** Children may develop an adjustment disorder triggered by the divorce and have an increased risk of later developing anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder if symptoms are left untreated.**

  • Impact on Academic Performance: The emotional strain may affect a child's ability to focus and perform well academically. Informing a child’s teacher about the divorce may provide good insight so that they can ensure the child is receiving extra support in the school setting if needed.  

  • Divided Loyalties: Navigating relationships with both parents separately can create internal conflicts and a sense of divided loyalties. Parents should avoid making both indirect and direct attempts at influencing their children to choose sides. Oversharing, speaking negatively about the other parent, or naming and shaming the other parent's faults should be avoided to protect the child from feeling this pressure. Many children, especially those who are young, need to be explicitly given permission to feel positively with one parent and understand that doesn’t mean they are going against the other. 

  • Sense of Loss: Children may experience a sense of loss, not only of the intact family unit but also of the life they knew before the divorce. Children often cycle through the stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, before reaching a place of acceptance. 

  • Misplaced Blame: Children often want to understand why their parents chose to get a divorce. As they attempt to rationalize the reason for the divorce many children often misperceive that they are to blame. It is important for parents to make it clear to their children that this is not true. Children may alternatively misplace the blame by expressing strong resentment or upset towards a certain parent. Both parents can practice expressing apologies and acknowledging the impact the divorce has on the child to try to attempt to begin to work through this.

  • Adjustment to Co-Parenting: Adapting to the new dynamics of co-parenting arrangements can be emotionally taxing. Children have to learn how to adapt to living in separate homes that often have different rules and routines which can present as a challenge. Parents who strive to co-parent peacefully can promote a healthier adjustment for their children. Maintaining respectful communication with each other is one of the best ways to carry this out. For divorced parents who struggle with healthy communication due to previous contention, less directive methods can be utilized, such as the Family Wizard app, which allows parents to manage custody calendars, shared expenses for their child, and a virtual secure messenger.   

Recognizing and addressing these challenges is crucial for parents and caregivers to provide the necessary support, understanding, and open communication that children need during this difficult time.

Tips for Blended Family Success

Over time, many parents choose to enter new relationships and marriages post-divorce. A blended family is established when two new partners who had previous relationships choose to merge their families together. Many factors contribute to how a child will adjust. Some children may express optimism and acceptance of becoming a part of a new blended family while others may feel discomfort and resistance initially. Successfully navigating a blended family requires intentional efforts to foster understanding, communication, and a sense of unity among all family members. Here are some essential tips for blended family success:

  • Open Communication: Encourage open and honest communication. Create a safe space for family members to express their feelings, concerns, and expectations.

  • Establish Clear Expectations: Set clear expectations for roles, responsibilities, and rules within the blended family. This helps create a sense of structure and consistency.

  • United Parenting Front: Establish a united parenting front. Consistency in discipline and decision-making helps create a stable environment for children and fosters a sense of security. Some children may be reluctant to accept discipline from their step-parent at first. Holding a family meeting to share and converse about established rules and new roles with children is an important step in the early development of the blended family, especially when the family begins to cohabitate. 

  • Build Relationships Gradually: Recognize that building relationships takes time. Allow relationships between step-siblings and step-parents to develop organically and avoid putting pressure on immediate closeness. The child should be in control of setting the pace. 

  • Quality Time Together: Schedule regular quality time as a blended family. Whether it's family outings, game nights, or shared meals, these moments foster bonding and create positive memories. Repetition of these positive experiences together will help each member join more readily with each other.

  • Be Intentional About Getting to Know Each Child as an Individual: Both step-parents and biological parents should spend 1:1 time with each child regularly. Parents should allow the child to lead in choosing activities and topics of conversation. This is especially important for the step-parent to practice to allow the child to feel that they have the desire to truly get to know them. Joining in a child’s interests and engaging is one of the most effective ways to build a genuine bond.

  • Respect Individual Boundaries: Acknowledge and respect individual boundaries. Each family member may have different comfort levels and expectations, so it's crucial to be mindful of personal space and autonomy.

  • Celebrate Differences: Embrace and celebrate the differences within the blended family. Each member brings unique qualities, and acknowledging and appreciating these differences can strengthen the family bond.


Navigating divorce is complex, but with proactive support and understanding, families can emerge stronger. Remember, adapting to this new way of life is a process that requires patience, understanding, and a commitment to working together as a team. With time and effort, families can create a supportive and loving environment for everyone involved post-divorce. For blended families, fostering positive relationships between children and new family members is a gradual process. Building trust and connection takes time, and creating an environment of understanding and acceptance is crucial. Recognizing signs of distress when your child is adjusting and seeking counseling when needed are vital steps toward fostering a healthy family dynamic.

The Role of Heritage Counseling

Counseling plays a vital role in supporting children in navigating the complexities of divorce within their families. Professional therapists provide a safe and neutral space for children to express their feelings, fears, and uncertainties surrounding the divorce. Through age-appropriate techniques and interventions, counselors help children develop coping mechanisms, resilience, and emotional regulation skills. Counseling also fosters open communication, enabling children to articulate their concerns and gain a better understanding of the changes happening in their lives. 

Additionally, therapists work collaboratively with parents to establish effective co-parenting strategies and promote a healthy family dynamic. By addressing the emotional impact of divorce early on, counseling empowers children to navigate the challenges with a greater sense of self-awareness, emotional well-being, and the tools necessary for a smoother transition into their new family structure. Heritage Counseling is committed to providing specialized support for families undergoing divorce, offering tailored strategies to promote the well-being of each family member.

If you're facing challenges during this transition, Heritage Counseling is here to provide guidance and support. Reach out to Heritage Counseling at 214-363-2345 for information on our family and child counseling options. 


**Lange AMC, Visser MM, Scholte RHJ, Finkenauer C. Parental Conflict

and Posttraumatic Stress of Children in High-Conflict Divorce

Families. J Child Adolesc Trauma. 2021 Oct 27;15(3):615-625.

doi: 10.1007/s40653-021-00410-9. PMID: 35958703; PMCID: