Parenting Advisor - Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health After a Divorce

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Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health After a Divorce

Experts say that children and adolescents often show symptoms of anxiety and depression after their parents’ divorce. When children show many symptoms, their doctors may refer them to a mental health provider. That provider might diagnose them with depression or an anxiety disorder. It can be scary if your child is diagnosed with a mental illness. You may worry about what the future holds for you and your child, and you might wonder what you can do to support them. 

After reading this article, you should be able to:

– explain what anxiety and depression symptoms may look like in a child.

– describe the steps parents usually follow to get a mental health diagnosis and treatment.

– list several ways to support a family when a child faces a mental illness.

Symptoms in Children

Divorced parents know how stressful a break-up can be. Families need to separating their belongings, might need to find a new place to live, figure out which parent will have legal and physical custody of the children, and maybe make many other decisions. It can all be overwhelming. These sudden changes have an impact on the parents, but they can have a big impact on the children, too. In some cases, it can be very hard for the children. They could end up with anxiety and/or depression. Anxiety and depression are often called mood disorders because they can affect a person’s mood or emotions. Specific symptoms of anxiety and depression in children are:

  • Irritable mood
  • Trouble sleeping
  • More headaches and stomachaches than usual
  • Not showing interest in their favorite activities
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Being afraid of school
  • Fear of being away from either or both parents 

Some of those things are normal for children. The important thing is to look for sudden or big changes. If you have seen some of these symptoms in any of your children, talk with their doctor about possible causes. The doctor will likely give you a referral for a psychologist or psychiatrist. 


If your child is diagnosed with anxiety or depression, don’t panic! These conditions can be treated. 

In anxiety and depression, there are two common avenues of treatment: medicine or therapy. Treatment with medicine usually means a psychiatrist or doctor will give your child an antidepressant prescription. Treatment with therapy can include individual talk therapy, family therapy and play therapy. There is a large body of research supporting both avenues of treatment for these conditions.  You can talk with your doctor and then with your family (and maybe even your co-parent!) to decide if one treatment or the other, or both, is right for them. 

Supporting Your Child

Take a moment to look at where you are in the process.

  • Has your child shown signs of anxiety or depression?
  • Have you been referred to a psychologist by your child’s doctor? 
  • Has a child psychiatrist diagnosed your child with anxiety, depression, or both? 
  • Are you trying to make a decision about medication or therapy?

You may be wondering what this all means, and what you can do for your child now that you have received a diagnosis. 

If your child is showing symptoms or you have already received a diagnosis, you may feel there is little you can do as a parent. It might feel like it is in the hands of experts now to support your child’s mental health. However, there are many ways for parents to support their child’s mental health at home. Here are some ideas:

  • Try to lower the stress levels in the home environment. Try deep breathing together.
  • Become a detective parent. Avoid blaming everything on mental illness. Look for simple explanations for negative behavior/mood
    • Have they eaten? Do they need to drink more water? Did they get enough sleep? 
  • Let your children take the lead after stressful situations. Let them know you are available when they want to talk, but then step back. Let them distance themselves from their emotions and discuss it with you later.
  • Encourage open communication when they are ready. You might not understand everything about what your child is going through, but you can hear their stories. Be there to listen and comfort them when they need it.
  • Maintain daily routines. Routines give children a sense of stability. That is especially important for those with conditions like anxiety. 

Supporting the Whole Family

When your child is going through mental illness, it can have an effect on you and other children in the family, too. Parents often experience stress, worry, and even feelings of grief when their child is ill. This is often referred to as “caregiver strain”. High levels of stress and worry can negatively affect your health and your ability to parent. Caregiver strain can further impact siblings.  They might feel neglected, and this can result in more fights between siblings. All of that can make it hard to enjoy family activities. 

Consider taking these steps to help you and your family cope: 

–        Don’t be afraid to ask the doctor for more information. Maybe you’re not sure what your child’s diagnosis means. Or maybe you don’t know what the next steps will be. Medical professionals are there to help! 

–        Allow yourself to feel however you feel. Use coping skills that have worked in the past or learn some new skills. Consider making an appointment for counseling if you need help to process emotions. 

–        Make time to check in with your other children. They can help you by giving you other things to think about.

–        Consider getting respite care from your co-parent or trusted family member. Respite care means finding someone else to care for your child while you take a break.

–        Turn to family and friends for support. Make sure you do not expect them to “fix” things. Just ask them to listen or just do something fun together.

–        Consider skills courses like Parent Management Training (PMT) that can help you help your child through treatment. Or you might want to try the Thrive class from


Adjusting to a new way of life after divorce can be difficult for the whole family. Take the time to check in with your kids and see if they may be showing any of the symptoms listed. Talk with your child’s doctor about their mental health and discuss what you can do together to support your child. Most important, don’t forget to check in with yourself and get the support you need as well.


Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2021, February 19). Anxiety and depression in children. ADAA. 

Department of Health & Human Services – Victoria. (2020, June 1). Helping your child with mental illness. Better Health Channel. 

Karczewski, S. A. (2022, November 16). 7 tips for coping with your child’s unexpected diagnosis. Children’s Hospital of Orange County. 

Mendenhall, A. N., & Mount, K. (2011). Parents of children with mental illness: Exploring the caregiver experience and caregiver-focused interventions. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 92(2), 183–190. 

National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. (2023, March 8). Anxiety and depression in children: Get the facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.,diagnosed%20depression%20in%202016%2D2019.

Strohschein, L. (2005). Parental divorce and child mental health trajectories. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(5), 1286–1300. 

Cleveland Clinic. (2022, January). Mental health disorders: Types, diagnosis & treatment options. Cleveland Clinic. 

Mental Health America. (n.d.). Helping at home: Tips for parents. Mental Health America. 

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