What to Expect During the First Year of Divorce

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by Chris Torrone

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08.12.2021

It is easy to assume that once a divorce has been finalized that life will be smooth sailing from there on out. Unfortunately even when the ink is dry on your divorce decree there will still be challenges ahead for you and your children, particularly in the first year after your divorce. Understanding the common challenges and setting expectations for yourself can help you manage the unforeseen impacts to your family immediately after your divorce.

What to expect for your kids

Regardless of your children’s ages, you can expect that they will experience intense mood swings. They may fluctuate between behaving normally, experiencing grief, bouts of anger or rage, or sometimes shut down completely. Knowing that these emotional fluctuations are normal can help you to better set expectations for how you will respond and how you can guide your children through the minefield of feelings ahead of them.

For very young children, ages three and under, they will likely experience confusion. It is difficult to explain to a toddler why their parents are now living in different places, or why they have to move to a new home. This confusion may manifest as separation anxiety or clinginess, preferring one parent over the other, or experiencing fear of abandonment during the transition between homes.

Even for infants, you can allay many of these fears by calmly talking through the changes to come. You can explain that you and your ex have separate homes now, but that your child will have everything they need at both. You can prepare them for the routine of exchange by packing an overnight bag together and talking about what to take. Encourage them to bring their favorite blanket or stuffed toy for comfort and walk them through what their day will look like with your ex. It may even be helpful for them to have a family photo in their room at each home, or a small photo album to carry with them between homes.

Pay attention to regressive behavior, such as potty accidents during the day, bedwetting at night, reverting to baby talk, thumbsucking or other repetitive self-soothing behavior. These are signs of stress, especially for children that are not yet fully verbal. Pay attention to these cues and offer your children more comfort, love, and verbal reassurance that they are safe.

Much of the success of this transitional stage for young children relies on you and your ex working toward peaceful co-parenting. If you can present a united front of two parents who love their child dearly while still living apart, then you will get ahead of many of the fears that small children may have when their home environment and routine are disrupted.

Presenting a united front as co-parents will also ease the transition for older children and teenagers. You and your ex should keep an eye out for increased stress and anxiety, particularly if it manifests in decreased academic performance or low interest in hobbies or social activities. These are common side effects of divorce for school-aged children.

For teens, there is the additional increased risk of mental health challenges and depression. Risk-taking behavior can also increase in teens who have experienced divorce. For example, drinking and drug use can be more tempting for teens who feel their security and stability has been disrupted. They are also at risk for increased or unsafe sexual activity. Even younger children have an increased likelihood of becoming sexually active at an earlier age, after they’ve experienced divorce.

One way that you can maintain stability for your children is to keep your boundaries and discipline consistent. This is also where an agreement to peacefully co-parent will help your children, because they will know that behavioral expectations are the same in both homes.

If you notice that your child is experiencing deep depression, engaging in the unsafe behaviors listed above, or are beginning to self-harm, seek out counseling or psychiatric help. There are mental health counselors that are experienced in helping kids and teens navigate life after divorce. They can also offer tools and strategies to practice resilience, learn self-care, and gain confidence.

As much as possible, work with your ex to put your children’s needs before your ego. Avoid negative talk about each other in front of your children, and work together to create a peaceful co-parenting relationship. This is something that takes time and effort, but is absolutely achievable. Successful co-parenting will have the effect of your children feeling safe, learning resilience, and knowing that even though their family looks a little different from how it used to, that it is still full of love.

Pay close attention to your kids and cultivate your relationship with them as individuals. If you are struggling with single-parenting or want to set yourself up for success, take a parenting class or sign yourself and your child up for family counseling or play therapy. These resources can help you and your children learn better bonding techniques, relational skills, and coping strategies that are appropriate for their developmental ages.

woman and child dealing with first year of divorce

What to expect for yourself

The first year after divorce is also a crucial time for you to take care of yourself and set yourself up for success. Prepare yourself by understanding and setting expectations for the common challenges that come up after divorce.

One aspect of life post-divorce that can take you by surprise is being overwhelmed by the “newness” of life. It can take time to adjust to life without a partner, a new home, and the realization that you are on your own. That can be jarring for many people, especially when a long-term marriage has ended. In an age of “divorce parties” you may expect that you’ll be able to transition without a hiccup, and then be caught off guard in the moments where you feel overwhelmed by the changes that divorce brings.

You may go through similar emotional swings to your children, without having a safe person to turn to the way they do. It can be challenging to be strong for them when you don’t have an outlet to feel or express your emotions. Expect that you will go through the same fluctuations of feeling relief, regret, freedom, sadness, excitement, and grief. You may feel capable, confident, and on top of the world one day, and then depressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed the next. This is normal and these emotional swings will lessen over time.

It may be easy to get caught up in all the short-term decisions that need to be made . . . whether or not to move to a new home, move your children to a different school, make adjustments in your work schedule to accommodate your needs as a single parent, etc. And that is on top of all the normal day-to-day decisions of what to wear to work, what to make for dinner, and when you’ll even have time to pick up groceries. All of these decisions can be overwhelming and can lead to decision paralysis. They can also cloud your ability to think long-term and make the big decisions needed to set you and your children up for success beyond the first year of divorce. 

Be gentle with yourself and do what you can to automate some of those decisions. Is there a trusted family member that can help with picking up and dropping off your kids at school and daycare? Are there grocery delivery options or meal subscriptions that are available in your area? Can you negotiate with your work for a flexible or remote work schedule? Take some time to consider what you can do to mitigate decision paralysis in the short-term and free up your emotional energy for the big decisions that will have the greatest effect on your family life.

Make time to take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Prioritize nourishing your body, exercising, and having a hobby or two that allows you time to yourself to do something that brings you joy. Be gentle with yourself, understanding that the first year will be filled with new experiences and emotional swings. Find a trusted friend or a mental health professional who makes you feel safe in expressing your emotions. Don’t try to take on everything by yourself. Be intentional about creating a supportive community to uplift you and your children.

At Torrone Law, we understand the gravity of the decision to divorce. We are here to support your family’s needs and get your life back on track. You can schedule a free consultation with our compassionate client coordinator.

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