Divorce is often painful and overwhelming for a couple, but the split can have unhealthy short- and long-term impacts on their children. By providing the appropriate care and support, however, parents can help protect their kids from lifelong mental and emotional scars.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), certain reactions are common in children with divorcing parents. While young children may become aggressive, uncooperative or withdrawn, older children may experience deep sadness and/or loss from the divorce. Behavior problems at home and school are typical. Long-term effects with regard to relationships and self-esteem can even follow children of divorced parents into adulthood.

The AACAP offers the following tips for parents to protect their kids’ mental and emotional health as they cope with the changes related to the divorce.

  1. Do not keep your divorce a secret or wait until the last minute to tell your children what’s happening. If possible, tell your kids about the divorce together with your spouse. Keep the information simple and straightforward; don’t share more than your children are asking for.
  1. Tell your kids the divorce is not their fault. Reassure them that you and your spouse love them and will always be their parents. The AACAP explains that children do best if they know their parents will still be there for them and remain involved even as living situations change.
  1. Admit the divorce will be upsetting for everyone involved, but show cooperation with your spouse during the process. The AACAP notes that children handle divorces better when they see their parents have minimal conflict.
  1. Do not discuss problems between you and your spouse and/or each other’s faults with your children. Pressure on a child to “choose a side” can be particularly harmful in both the short term and long term.

Dissolving a marriage is an adversarial process that can put an emotional strain on the entire family. Because of divorce’s negative impact on children, parents should stay alert to signs of distress in their children. Paying close attention to your kids’ feelings and needs can help them deal with the challenges to come in healthy, supported ways.