Learning About How to Help a Child Cope With Divorce

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Divorce can cause serious and lasting effects on a child. How well a child is able to cope will depend on many things, including the child's age and personality. How parents treat each other as they divorce will have also a big impact on their child.

Children often feel sad, angry, guilty, and fearful when parents break up. Some children may worry that their parents don't love them. Behavior problems are common as children grieve the loss of the family.

There are many things you can do to support your child through this process. Providing security and comfort can help your child cope with divorce.

How does divorce affect children?

Divorce can be stressful for children. Many things affect how a child reacts to divorce, including their age. Every child is different, but in general:

  • Children younger than age 3 may be irritable and cry more. They may have sleep and stomach problems. They may start acting younger than their age. They may fear being separated from the parent they are living with. They may have problems with bladder control and may wet the bed.
  • Children ages 4 to 5 may blame themselves for the breakup. They may be confused or have trouble expressing themselves with words. They may become clingy. They may worry about being abandoned. They may fantasize that their parents will get back together. They often act out.
  • School-age children often grieve openly. They may struggle to accept the divorce as permanent. They may feel rejected by the parent who left the home. They may have trouble in school. They may blame themselves for the breakup and feel as if they should be punished.
  • Adolescents and teens are more likely to take sides with one parent over the other. They may have problems with their self-esteem and relationships. Some teens may use substances or experiment with sex. They may do poorly in school. They may feel anger or shame or become depressed. Adolescents may have more trouble than teens do in adapting to stepparents. But they may be more open to counseling and support from teachers, grandparents, or other mentors.

How can you help your child cope with divorce?

  • Tell your child early on what is happening. Reinforce that the divorce is not your child's fault.
  • Be warm and reassuring, and listen to your child. Ask about your child's worries or fears.
  • Provide structure and routine. Keeping a routine is important and helps your child feel secure.
  • Maintain positive, stable events like soccer games, piano lessons, and overnight visits with friends. This will help your child feel as if the world is still safe.
  • Don't try to get your child to take sides.
  • Avoid criticizing the other parent. Don't argue in front of the child or where the child can overhear you, especially when talking about the details of visits, holidays, or custody.
  • Respect the other parent's values. Try to keep rules for the child the same between households.
  • Don't make your child feel bad for leaving you or say things that might make the child feel that they must fix the other parent.

Where can you learn more?

Go to http://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.