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Children and divorce: Helping kids after a breakup
Divorce is between adults — but the breakup of a marriage can have profound effects on children, too. Here's help presenting a united front to your child.By Mayo Clinic staff
Divorce is stressful for the entire family. Your child might feel as if his or her world has turned upside down. But there's good news. You can ease your child's adjustment to the divorce 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.
Also tell your child's teacher and school counselor or social worker about the divorce. They can observe your child and keep you updated on any concerns.
Expect a mix of reactions
Initially, your child might 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 could 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 If your child's anger turns inward, he or she might become depressed or withdrawn.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
Respecting your child's relationship with the other parent can help your child adapt to the divorce. 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.
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- Desrochers JE. Divorce: A parents' guide for supporting children. National Association of School Psychologists. http://www.nasponline.org/resources/parenting/divorce_ho.aspx. Accessed Jan. 28, 2011.
- Adjusting to divorce. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/types-of-families/pages/Adjusting-to-Divorce.aspx. Accessed Jan. 28, 2011.
- Wolchik SA, et al. Promoting resilience in youth from divorced families: Lessons learned from experimental trials of the New Beginnings Program. Journal of Personality. 2009;77:1833.
- Graves RM, et al. Children of divorce. In: McInerny TK, et al. American Academy of Pediatrics Textbook of Pediatric Care. Elk Grove Village, Ill.: American Academy of Pediatrics; 2009:1056.
- Divorce, separation and bereavement. In: Marcdante KJ, et al. Nelson Essentials of Pediatrics. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:98.