Dealing with Divorce

Create a smoother and easier transition for your child.

Breaking the News

Every year, more than one million children in the United States experience the divorce of their parents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Many of these children are under the age of 6. Divorce brings about a great deal of changes for a family and the children usually have trouble adjusting to this new lifestyle. Read on for some guidelines on making the transition easier for the youngest members of the family.

Here are some tips from the AAP and the American Medical Association (AMA) on telling your child about an impending divorce and helping ensure a smoother transition for everyone:

  • Have both parents present to explain the situation.
  • Explain divorce as a means to make Mommy and Daddy happier.
  • Make it clear that your child is not the source of the problem and is in no way responsible for the failure of the marriage.
  • Assure your child that Mommy and Daddy are both still his parents, even if they're no longer husband and wife.
  • Don't let any personal antagonism between you and your partner into the conversation.
  • Answer your child's questions honestly and age-appropriately.

Behavioral Changes

Every child will react differently to a separation or divorce. Here are some general guidelines from the AAP on behavioral changes to expect:

Children under 5 years of age may:

  • Be afraid of others
  • Not want to be separated from one parent
  • Have problems eating or sleeping
  • Have trouble with toilet training
  • Have outbursts or tantrums
  • Blame themselves for the divorce -- especially children between 3 and 5 years of age

School-age children may:

  • Be moody or angry
  • Have problems eating or sleeping
  • Seem distracted and faraway
  • Not do as well in school
  • Have tantrums
  • Be more aggressive or angry
  • Express their sadness and wishes for parents to get back together
  • Worry about divided loyalty to their parents

Adjusting to a New Life

The changes that come with divorce can be jarring to a child. Here are some tips from the AAP and the AMA on smoothing the transition.

  • Provide consistency and routine. Stick to a daily schedule of meals, chores, and bedtime. Parents living separately should agree on a set of consistent rules for both households.
  • Live up to your promises. If a parent plans a visit or an outing with her child, she needs to follow through on it. Broken promises can foster a feeling of abandonment.
  • Keep your relationship with your former partner cordial. Your child will feel more comfortable sharing his love with both parents if he experiences a civility between them.
  • Respect the relationship between your child and his other parent. Assure your child that spending time with his other parent is in no way disloyal to you. Let your child talk with you about your former partner without feeling uncomfortable.
  • Don't hesitate to discipline your child. A recently-divorced parent often feels the need to "pamper" her child. Resist the urge to let a child grieving over a divorce get away with behaviors that are otherwise unacceptable.
  • Stay in a parental role. Remember that your child is still a child -- not a confidant. If you share stories about marital problems with your child, he may have difficulty relating to the other parent. Avoid putting your child in the middle of what is truly an adult situation that they don't have the maturity to handle.
  • Resist using your child as a replacement for your former partner. Avoid pressuring children with statements like, "You're the man in the family now." Children have a right to enjoy childhood and grow up at a normal pace.

Custody and Child Support

Working out custody arrangements can be one of the most difficult elements of a divorce. However, there is a large variety of custody arrangements you can agree upon. There are two legal types of custody, according to the AAP:

  • Physical custody defines where the child lives. This can be split between both parents.
  • Legal custody refers to a parent's right to share in key decisions such as a child's schooling, medical treatment, and religion. Even if physical custody remains with one parent, the other parent can share legal custody.

Mothers are more likely to maintain physical custody of a child, but more and more fathers are now taking on this role. Regardless of which parent has custody, both should play an active role in the child's daily life by helping with homework, attending school meetings, and providing emotional and financial support. Neither parent should be prevented from taking part in raising the child.

Both parents have a financial obligation to their child, but millions of female-headed households aren't currently receiving child support, according to the AAP. Contact your state's child support enforcement agency for guidelines on your local laws about child support. If your child's other parent will not cooperate, your state or local government may take action to force payment.

If you're having custody or child support disagreements, consider calling a mediator or attorney to help settle the problem.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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