How to Talk to Kids About Divorce

A little girl sits and cries.
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Divorce is often stressful for both parents and their children, and now a new report with some advice for parents encourages them to look to their children's pediatricians, therapists and others in their communities to help them manage this tough transition.

Research shows that children may experience a range of behavioral changes as a result of their parents' divorce, the authors of the report said. Children's reactions to their parents' separation may involve anxiety, self-blame for the divorce, or poor performance at school, depending on the children's age, circumstances of the divorce and parents' own psychological functioning, according to the new report, published today (Nov. 28) in the journal Pediatrics.

Because that last factor — the parents' own functioning — affects children's ability to cope with their parents' divorce, parents should make sure they can cope with their own emotions related to the separation in order to be able to offer stronger support to their children, said Dr. Carol C. Weitzman, a co-author of the report and a professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine.

Parents should "take the pulse on their own emotional state" and get psychological help for themselves if they realize they need it, Weitzman said. [25 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

This help may involve talk therapy, support groups for divorced people or, if a parent is religious, talking to someone like a pastor, she said.

"The more a parent is feeling capable and OK, the more they are going to be able to meet their children's needs," Weitzman told Live Science. "The less in control they feel, the more overwhelmed they feel [and] the more difficult it will be to keep their children's needs front and center."

In recent years, there have been about 800,000 divorces in the United States per year, affecting about 1 million kids per year, the researchers said. Many children experience problems adjusting to the new situation in the first year of their parents' separation, but research shows that most of these problems typically resolve within two or three years after the parents' separation, the researchers said. However, kids' sense of loss may last for years, or may generally improve but still get worse on holidays, birthdays or special events, the researchers said.

The new report looked at previous research examining how children may react to divorce, and provided tips for pediatricians for how to assist children and families affected by divorce.

To help their children cope with parents' divorce, parents also may consider getting psychological help for their children if those children struggle with coping with the new situation, Weitzman said. [The Science of Breakups: 7 Facts About Splitsville]

Parents should also assure their kids that they will always love them even though the parents are not together anymore, Weitzman said.

In addition, parents should try to preserve their kids' normal routines — such as school, extracurricular activities, and contact with family and friends — as much as possible, study co-author Dr. Michael Yogman, a pediatrician in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in a statement. Moreover, "Children need to understand that they did not cause the divorce, and have their questions answered honestly, at their level of understanding," he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer