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 interacting 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 tell your child about the divorce together. Speak honestly and simply, but 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 — 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, school counselor and doctor about the divorce. They can observe your child, keep you updated on any concerns and offer guidance.

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 quickly 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 If your child's anger turns inward, he or she might become depressed or withdrawn.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 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.
Mar. 08, 2014 See more In-depth