Movies to Help Kids Understand Divorce

By Tracey Dowdy

By the time they turn 33, many Americans are well on their way to the American dream – they’re married, have bought a home, and are earning an annual salary of about $50,000. Unfortunately, that American Dream sometimes doesn’t play out the way we imagined. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 20 percent of first marriages end in divorce within five years, and 48 percent of marriages dissolve by the 20-year mark. The divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher.

No one would argue that a healthy marriage contributes to a happy home, and children who grow up in one of those happy homes are better protected from mental health issues, as well as physical, educational and social problems. It can be traumatic, but research suggests that most children adjust well within two years following the divorce.

Finding your new “normal” can be a challenge for everyone. Many times, children aren’t sure what to expect with such major life change, and they’re likely to have questions and concerns.

The most important thing is of course to have healthy, open communication and for the children to know that the reasons the marriage ended are between partners, and it isn’t their fault. These movies can help start conversations, and perhaps normalize some of the emotions your children may experience.

The Parent Trap – The original version (1961 – Hayley Mills) is charming though it has some rather dated gender roles, while the newer version (1999 – Lindsay Lohan) holds up even though it’s 20 years old this year. There’s a considerable amount of lying starting with both parents hiding the existence of the other twin, so both films offer multiple teachable moments about the importance of telling the truth to build trust in a relationship. The movie’s plot is focused on the girl’s attempts to get the parents to reconcile, a common wish for children of divorce. Suitable for ages 6+.

Night at the Museum – It may be an odd choice since divorce is a subplot, not the necessarily the focus of the film, but the primary reason Stiller takes the job as night watchman at the museum is an effort to maintain contact with and provide some level of stability for his son, with whom he shares custody with his ex-wife. You’ll discover conversation starters about the impact divorce can have on family finances, lessons on conflict resolution, and on the importance of taking responsibility for your actions. Best for kids ages 7+.

Mrs. Doubtfire – Despite the fact Robin Williams is at his funniest, Mrs. Doubtfire takes a rather raw, un-funny look at life after divorce and the animosity that can tear a family apart. While filled with sight gags, great one-liners, and scenes that will make everyone giggle, there are several that may be difficult for kids in the midst of separation to watch, especially the high conflict scenes between Williams and his onscreen wife, Sally Field. It can open conversations about judging others unfairly, the dangers of making assumptions and being unwilling to forgive or show mercy, and the importance of keeping things amicable for everyone’s sake. Because of some mature themes and profanity, this is best for ages 12 and up.

The Pursuit of Happyness – If you’re ready for as near a real-life look at divorce as you can get without watching a documentary, The Pursuit of Happyness is a good choice. It’s gritty, emotional, and at times hard to watch. But, even more, the love Will Smith’s character shows for his son, his commitment to their relationship, and his determination to be a good father whatever it takes makes up for the darker elements of the film. Best for kids 12+.

What Maisie Knew – Certainly the most heart wrenching to watch, What Maisie knew paints parents Susanna and Beale, (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) in painfully harsh colors. They regularly fight over custody and parenting in front of Maisie, and their disdain for one another is obvious. The story is told primarily through Maisie’s eyes, and can provide older children and parents the opportunity to unpack some very uncomfortable feelings and experiences. Be prepared – the parents are not portrayed sympathetically. As one critic stated, “…although Maisie’s situation is very specific — her parents are of a very affluent, very downtown Manhattan type with a lifestyle that few people live — her experience is unfortunately universal. We need to know what she knows.” Best for kids ages 15+.

 Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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