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How does divorce affect children?

Learn what to expect and how to prepare your kids for the divorce

While it can be especially difficult for kids to deal with divorce, you should know that many millions of families have successfully made it through their divorce with well-adjusted kids. Many parents find that once the stress of living with the other parent is over, they can interact more positively with their children.

You and your soon-to-be-former spouse can make divorce easier on the kids—and yourselves— by working together to tell your kids about the divorce and sort out custody and child support issues.

Telling your kids about the divorce

Both you and the other parent should be present when telling your child or children about the divorce. Explain, as best you can, what things are going to change and what things are going to stay the same. Emphasize that you love your kids and that the divorce is not because of them.

Impacts of divorce on children

Toddlers can pick up on the tension in the home when parents split up, even though they aren’t developmentally equipped to understand divorce. After a divorce, they may be clingier or fussier than usual, or regress in some of their development (like forgetting their toilet training or not sleeping through the night).

Kids over the age of 5 may also regress, break rules to get attention, or blame themselves for the divorce. Pre-teens and teenagers may also act out, and are more likely to blame one parent for the divorce. However, their reactions will also depend on their personalities.

Provide kids of all ages with reassurance and attention during a divorce. Keep as many things as possible the same, and establish routines, such as extracurricular activities, familiar home activities, visits with extended family, etc.

Keeping kids out of the conflict

Minimizing how much divorce affects your children means not involving them in conflicts with their other parent:

  • Don’t argue with your former spouse in front of the kids.
  • Don’t involve the kids in any disputes between you and their other parent.
  • Don’t ask your kids to choose you over their other parent.
  • Don’t bad-mouth their other parent in front of them.
  • Don’t overshare details of the divorce or your feelings about your former spouse.

Unless there are serious mitigating circumstances, like abuse or neglect, both parents should respect each other’s interests and their children’s interests in maintaining bonds with both parents.

Creating a parenting plan

Family courts typically require a parenting plan, which sets out things like child support, the visitation or custody schedule, and shared decisions about how the children will be raised. When you and the other parent cooperate, you can create much of this plan on your own. Otherwise, the judge may make decisions for you.

Custody types

There are 4 main types of child custody:

  • Sole legal
  • Joint legal
  • Sole physical
  • Joint physical

Parents with legal custody can make major decisions, such as where their children live, attend religious services, or attend school. Parents with physical custody can have their children living with them part-time or full-time.

Parents often share legal and physical custody of their children (joint custody). Sometimes only one parent has both legal and physical custody (sole custody). And sometimes parents share physical but not legal custody, or vice versa.

Navigating joint and sole custody

When parents have joint physical custody, they must transfer children between homes on a schedule approved by the family court. Joint physical custody does not mean that parents must split time exactly 50/50. Custody might alternate weeks, or weekdays and weekends.

If the parents live far away from each other, or cannot otherwise maintain joint physical custody, 1 parent could get sole physical custody, while the other parent gets visitation rights.

Parents with joint legal custody may disagree about how their children should be raised. Your parenting plan might stipulate that one parent will be the “tie-breaker” if you can’t agree, or that each parent is responsible for certain decisions. Sometimes, particularly if 1 parent has sole physical custody, it makes sense for the same parent to have sole legal custody too.

Child support payments

The parent that spends less time with the children or makes more money than the other parent will likely owe child support money. Child support payments are set by the divorce court, based on parental income and customary expenses. Courts have some discretion to adjust child support payments in extenuating circumstances.

Include any large regular payments in the parenting plan, such as regular doctor’s visits or medical treatment, private school, or extracurricular activities. Some parents choose to specify which parent pays for which kinds of expenses.

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