Divorce — Helping Children Adjust

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American Academy of Pediatrics

Every year, more than one million children in the United States experience the divorce of their parents. The average divorce takes place within the first seven years of marriage, so many of these children are under the age of 6. For many children, divorce can be as difficult as the death of a parent. The entire family is faced with the challenge of adjusting to a new way of life. When this happens, children need the guidance, patience, and love of both parents to help them through.

There are many things you can do to help your child adjust to the changes in your family, including the following:

Put Your Child First

The most important factor in how divorce affects a child’s life is how parents treat each other and their children during and after the divorce. Keep in mind, divorce is a major event in your child’s life, one that she has no control over. Parents must work together to make the changes as easy as possible for everyone. Even as the marriage ends, your role as a parent continues. In fact, it becomes more important than ever. Set aside your differences with your child’s other parent and put your child first, by following these suggestions:

Never force your child to take sides. Every child will have loyalties to both parents.
Do not involve your child in arguments between the two of you.
Do not criticize each other in front of your child or when your child might be listening to a conversation you are having with someone else. Even if you find out the other parent is saying bad things about you, explain to your child that when people get angry they sometimes say things that are hurtful.
Discuss your concerns and feelings with your child’s other parent when and where your child cannot hear.
Avoid fighting in front of your child.

Allow Your Child To Be a Child

Resist using your child as a replacement for your ex-spouse. Avoid pressuring children with statements like, “You are the man in the family now” or “Now I have to depend on you.” Children have a right to enjoy childhood and grow up at a normal pace. As they grow older, they will be able to take on more responsibility and help around the house. Don’t expect too much too soon.

Respect the Relationship Between Your Child and the Other Parent

Allow your children to spend time with their other parent without making them feel guilty or disloyal to you. When a parent leaves, many children are afraid the other one may leave too. Reassure your children that you both still love them even though they may only be living with one parent at a time. It is important to let your children show their love to both parents. Unless your ex-spouse is unfit to parent, try not to let your differences keep your children away from him or her. Remember, one of the most important ways to help your children cope with a separation or divorce is to help them maintain a strong, loving relationship with both parents.

Keep Your Child’s Daily Routine Simple and Predictable

Many divorced parents feel guilty that the divorce has upset their children. They find it hard to discipline the children when they need it. Making rules, setting a good example, and providing emotional support can be difficult. Giving in to your child’s demands will not help. Anger or difficult behavior may be part of your child’s attempts to cope with the divorce. Set sensible limits. Schedule meals, chores and bedtime at regular times so that your child knows what to expect each day. Parents living separately should agree on a set of consistent rules for both households. It is also very important to live up to your promises to visit or spend time with your child. A routine weekly or monthly schedule may be comforting to your child.

Adjusting to a New Life

Children have great strength and the ability to bounce back from rough times. After a divorce, children may even develop much closer relationships with each parent. In time, most children learn to accept the changes brought on by divorce. The challenge becomes much easier though, when both parents provide the understanding, support, and love that all children need from their mothers and fathers, even after they separate.

Use Help From the Outside

Children often turn to neighbors, grandparents and peers for comfort and attention. These relationships can offer support and stability to children as well as needed relief to a parent. Teachers or school social workers who are aware of the divorce and understand the child’s problems also may be able to give a helping hand.

For many parents too, the changes are not easy. Many adults going through a divorce experience depression. If you are suffering from anxiety or depression as a result of a divorce or separation, don’t be afraid to see a counselor. It is important for parents to be healthy so they can be available to their children during this difficult time. Social agencies, mental health centers, women’s centers, and support groups for divorced or single parents are helpful. There are also many informative books and articles about divorce for both parents and children — check your local bookstore. Your pediatrician is very aware of the effects that separation and divorce may have on emotions and behavior. He or she can help you find ways to cope with the stress you and your children are feeling.

The information contained in this publication should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.

© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics