Children and Divorce

By Mayo Clinic staff

Divorce is stressful for the entire family. Your child may feel as if his or her world has turned upside down. But there’s good news. You can make your child’s adjustment to the divorce much easier simply by choosing to interact responsibly with your spouse. Consider these practical tips for children and divorce.

How to break the news

It’s best if you and your spouse can tell your child about the divorce together. Speak honestly and simply, and skip the ugly details. You might say, “Your mom (or dad) and I have been having trouble getting along, so we think it’s best for us to live apart.”

Make sure your child understands that divorce is only between adults. Remind your child — repeatedly if necessary — that he or she did nothing to cause the divorce and that both of you love your child as much as ever.

Expect a mix of reactions

Initially, your child may be most interested in concrete things. Where will I live? Do I need to change schools? Who will take me to swimming lessons? As you work out the terms of the divorce, try to maintain your child’s routine as much as possible — or be quick to establish a new routine. Knowing what to expect will help your child feel more secure.

But soon, the reality of divorce will settle in. A younger child might respond to the stress by regressing to behavior he or she had previously outgrown, such as sucking on a pacifier or wetting the bed. A resurgence of separation anxiety may strike as well. Help your child put his or her feelings into words.

An older child might respond to the stress with a mix of emotions — anger, anxiety, grief or even relief. If your child’s anger turns inward, he or she may become depressed or withdrawn. Anger can have the opposite effect, too, causing a child to act out or develop behavior issues. Encourage your child to share his or her feelings as openly as possible.

Keep your child out of the fight

How your child adapts to the divorce is largely dependent on how you and your spouse act, especially toward each other. To respect your child’s relationship with the other parent, keep these general “don’ts” in mind:

  • Don’t speak badly about your spouse in front of your child.
  • Don’t make accusations against your spouse in front of your child.
  • Don’t force your child to choose sides.
  • Don’t use your child as a messenger or go-between.
  • Don’t argue or discuss child support issues in front of your child.
  • Don’t pump your child for information about the other parent.
  • Don’t use your child as a pawn to hurt the other parent.

Don’t bend the rules

It may be tempting to relax your parental rules while your child grieves over the divorce. But this will only make your child feel more insecure. Children thrive on consistency, structure and routine — even if they insist on testing the boundaries and limits. If your child shares time between two households, it’s important for the rules to be similar in both homes.

Counseling can help

You might feel so hurt or overwhelmed by your divorce that you turn to your child for comfort and direction — but that’s not your child’s role. For help sorting through your feelings, you might join a divorce support group or seek counseling through a social service agency or mental health center. If you need help reaching decisions about your child during or after the divorce, consider using the services of a family or divorce mediator.

Your child may also benefit from counseling, especially if he or she:

  • Feels sad or angry
  • Has trouble sleeping or eating
  • Has problems at school or with friends
  • Experiences personality changes
  • Develops irrational fears

Put your child first

During a divorce, interacting with your spouse might be the last thing you want to do — but it’s important. Your child needs both of you. Work out custody arrangements and other details with your child’s best interests in mind. Remember that a bitter or prolonged custody battle may take a serious, long-term toll on your child’s mental health. Instead, help your child maintain a strong, loving relationship with the other parent as you work toward meeting common parenting goals. For your child, support from both parents may be the best tool for weathering the challenges of divorce.

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