Supporting Children of Divorce: Guidelines for Caregivers

The bond with a caregiver may be the most stable relationship for children whose parents are separating or getting a divorce. This NebGuide discusses how caregivers can help children cope with their emotions during this difficult time.

Cindy R. Strasheim, Extension Educator

What Should I Look For? How Can I Help?

Child care professionals, elementary teachers, and family members often ask these questions while caring for children whose parents have separated or are divorcing.

Children of divorce exhibit behaviors that are similar to other children in their age group. However, there are times when they have mood swings with more frequency and intensity than children who are not experiencing divorce. Reactions depend on age, ego, temperament, and resources. The level and frequency of parental conflict witnessed by young children increases the level of anxiety exhibited in their behaviors.

Divorce is a grief experience surpassed only by the death of a parent. For most children divorce may be the first true grief they have experienced. Divorce is like having a life-threatening disease for which there is no cure. Children feel as if their life has changed forever, but they feel powerless to do anything about it. The anxiety of waiting for the next thing to happen and wondering whether it will be good or bad often causes behavior to escalate outwardly in a group.

Children in families who have experienced divorce or custody struggles may be caught in the middle of parental conflicts. All humans, regardless of age, react to stress with the typical “fight or flight” response. Because of this human condition, it can take as long as 72 hours after witnessing or participating in a confrontation for the body and emotions of an adult or a child to return to normal. Unfortunately, during such times when the child needs extra understanding and patience, the parent has the least emotional energy to give to them.

Child Care Providers and Family Caregivers Provide Stability

The bond with a caregiver may be the most stable relationship for the child during the change in family structure. Changes during divorce can feel very uncomfortable. Sensitive care providers can establish a safe, secure, and familiar place for children to rest and regain perspective on family life, although they may not have actively experienced a divorce in their family. Children have a fear of loss and abandonment. “What if my parent divorces me, too?” “What if I have to give up my room, my things, my friends, my other parent?” The stability of a consistent caregiver provides security in the middle of chaos. Keeping things normal and stable at the child care center or school is important for this child and all of the other children in your care, too.

Psychological Reactions to Divorce

Caregivers may notice either subtle or extreme changes in the behavior of children during the process of separation and divorce. Psychological reactions to stress are normal to all humans, but children are especially vulnerable to the following feelings:

Managing Behavior

Behaviors depend on age, ego, temperament, and resources. Children have a goal in every behavior, but they are unlikely to be aware of it. It may take time for a caregiver to notice the reason for the behavior.

The following chart will provide a guide for what children from birth to eight years of age want to accomplish with their behavior:

Posting the “I Message”

For children age 7 and older, posting the “I Message” example in a place where children can see it may encourage them to problem-solve and self-manage behavior.

For in-home family caregivers, make a copy of this example, laminate it, add a magnet, and post on the refrigerator with an erasable marker close by.

I Formula

I feel


(feeling word)


When ___________________________________________
(tell what causes this feeling)


I would like _____________________________________
(tell what you would like to change)


Four Goals of Behavior

  • Contact — undue attention seeking
  • Power — rebellion
  • Protection — revenge
  • Withdrawal — undue avoidance

— Active Parenting 2012

For children to manage their own behavior, they need skills. The skill of “I messages” teaches children to identify feelings and to ask for changes, e.g., “I feel {name the feeling} when {tell what causes the feeling}. Will you or I would like {tell what would you like to change}.” Example: “I feel scared when you and Dad fight. Will you please not fight in front of me?

“Seek first to know and then to understand” is a cornerstone of Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This concept is a priority in effectively caring for children. Often the best thing a caregiver can do is listen. Providing direction while teaching children to problem-solve is another important behavior management skill.

Caregivers need no special training. They should just draw upon the same empathetic qualities that make them loving caregivers of children.

How to Be a Compassionate Caregiver

  1. Listen
  2. Love
  3. Laugh
  4. Let them solve problems with you as a coach.
  5. Let them move on to other things when they are ready.
  6. Lead them and the parents to a counselor if they need more help than you can give.

What Do Kids Want?

Judith Wallerstein says, “For most children, the news that their parents are divorcing arrives like a bolt of lightning.” You may have been arguing, fighting, even living apart, but to children this becomes their “normal” life. When you tell them this will change, they are thunderstruck.

The participants of Kids Talk About Divorce, an educational program for children whose parents are divorcing, range in age from 5-18. These children say they want to know that they are loved. They want to know that they are safe and that everything will be OK. What can a caregiver do for the child of divorce? According to the children themselves: “Just hold me. Tell me it wasn’t my fault. Tell me that I can love both parents and spend time with both parents and, most of all, that you will be there for me.”

When they are ready to move on and do things normally and on their own, they will. They won’t consult you and say, “I’m ready!” They will begin to problem-solve on their own and seek encouragement for the new experiences they are learning.

Positives for Children of Divorce


Alden, A. E. Parenting on Purpose: Red, Yellow, Green Framework for Respectful Discipline. Plymouth, MN: Crane Publishers, 2004.

Heatherington, E. Mavis and John Kelly. For Better or For Worse — Divorce Reconsidered. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2002.

Kreider, R. M. Remarriage in the United States. Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association. Montreal, 2006.

MacGregor, Cynthia. The Divorce Helpbook for Kids. Atascadera, California: Impact Publishers, 2001.

Positive Discipline Association. What is Positive Discipline? Retrieved July 24, 2013, from www.positivediscipline.com: http://www.positivediscipline.com/What_is_PD_

Teyber, E. Helping Children Cope With Divorce. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Wallerstein, J. S. What About the Kids? Raising Your Child Before, During, and After Divorce, Hyperion, New York, 2003.


This publication has been peer reviewed.

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Index: Family Life
2008, Revised October 2013