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Don’t Let Your Kids Be Casualties of Divorce

It’s not the children you’re breaking up with, so be careful to keep them out of the crossfire.

Writer: Alan Ravitz, MD, MS

Clinical Expert: Alan Ravitz, MD, MS

en Español

A divorce is a dispute between you and your spouse — it’s got nothing to do with the kids. You have to do everything you can to keep the kids out of the middle of whatever conflicts you have.

1. Don’t fight in front of them.
Research shows that the worst thing for kids is to see their parents fight with each other. The technical term for what you want to avoid is “expressed affect,” which essentially means yelling and screaming. If kids don’t see their parents yelling and screaming at each other, they do better than if they do see them bickering.

2. Do give them access to both of you.
The other thing that’s bad for kids is to lose contact with — or access to — one of the parents. You have to find a way to make sure that during the initial conflict, and then subsequently over the years, kids have unfettered relationships with both parents.

3. Don’t make them choose.
If you make it a test of loyalty, children will feel as if they’re only allowed to love one parent, and if they love the other parent it’s going to be a betrayal of the first parent. This is a terrible situation for kids to be in.

4. Don’t confide in them.
Insulating the children from the conflict means parents shouldn’t be sharing information with them. When you feel that the court or the opposing attorney has done you wrong, it’s tempting to tell the kids about it, but it’s totally inappropriate. You want to keep your kids as far away from the legal battle as possible.

5. Don’t use them as a weapon.
It’s important to remember that you were probably both pretty good parents before the divorce process started. Now you’re going to be looking for all sorts of little problems with each other’s parenting, but most of those are irrelevant. You need to focus on the big issues and you need to keep your kids out of it.

6. Think of what’s fair to the kids, not to you.
A lot of times in a divorce the parents are focused on what’s fair to them; they feel that their rights have been breached in some way or another. But the truth is that sometimes what’s fair to a parent is not fair to a kid. What you really want to focus on is what’s good for the children, not what’s fair to you.

The good news is that the great majority of kids whose parents divorce do well. The data on the effect of divorce shows that, although there is a statistically significant negative effect, it’s a tiny one — a quarter of a standard deviation. The kids who don’t do well are those who have been exposed to chronic parental conflict and those who have been alienated from one parent or another. As long as you can insulate your kids from the conflict, it’s likely that they’ll turn out just fine.

This article was last reviewed or updated on November 6, 2023.