If you are parent who has gone through divorce, this article is not intended to make you feel guilty. Instead, the purpose is to help you recognize the effects of divorce on children in order to face them in the best possible way.
If there are problems or issues with your child as a result of the divorce, there is hope. There is help available. The first step is recognizing any effects the divorce has had which caused your child to have social, emotional, physical, or cognitive issues. Behavioral issues are the most common signal that your child is not coping well with the divorce situation.
Some kids go though divorce and are not adversely affected. Even in situations when things are very tumultuous during the divorce, a child can appear unaffected. There are other children who are traumatized and exhibit emotional and/or behavioral problems when their parents’ divorce has been calm and amicable. It goes to show that the a child’s reaction to divorce greatly varies from one child to the next.
A 2014 study cited that, in evaluating three decades of research, children are statistically better off emotionally, mentally, and physically if their parents can stick together, stay married, and work through their problems. The only exception to this is if abuse is present.
However, it doesn’t always work out that way. Divorce is a reality in our culture and world today. Therefore, we need to be more aware of how a divorce may affect our children, recognizing signs if there are any issues with your child, and then getting them the help that is needed. It is difficult to help a child with a problem if you don’t first recognize that it exists.
This article is help you better identify behavioral problems that may stem from unprocessed emotions associated with a divorce.
You can do all the right things, meaning you get the child counseling, keep them out of the adult issues, and share parenting duties amicably, yet the child can still have behavioral issues. Therefore, even if you have checked all the boxes and done all the things to protect your child during the divorce, you should still be aware of the potential for problems with your child as a result.
Every child is different. You can have two children in the same household, and one appears to process the divorce fine, and the other has apparent behavioral issues that arise as a consequence of the divorce. This is not uncommon. It is because every person is different and unique, as is their ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and major life changes.
There is no guilt needed or shaming involved. If you are divorced, you are not alone. In fact, you are part of a growing cohort of people around the world. With the high number of divorces in countries around the world, and children being affected, we need to prepare ourselves with information on the effects of divorce on children and learn to recognize when our children need help.
How Children Think About Divorce
Kids don’t think logically. They lack the world experience and knowledge that adults possess. This means that when things like divorce occur, they may not have logical thoughts about what is happening to their family.
There are children who will think it is their fault, or that if they act better or try harder that their parents will stay together. Not all children will think this way, but many will have thoughts that are not logical, rational, or healthy.
It is imperative that adults have conversations with their children so that the child knows that the divorce and situation is not their fault. Parents should have a cohesive plan on how to talk to their children about divorce. Dr. Kevin D. Arnold, PhD, explains that parents should help their children process the emotions they have about divorce:
“Parents desire to shield their children from pain, let alone want to cause their babies to suffer. But, suffering happens. Divorcing parents have an opportunity to teach their children how to handle pain effectively. In every dire circumstance exists the chance to learn and grow; parents who use divorce as one such chance can help their children learn this fundamental truth.”
It is not about protecting our children from the divorce, because if divorce is imminent, then it is a reality of the child’s world. The key is helping children effectively navigate and process their feelings and emotions as they go through this major change in their family.
Sadness and Other Feelings
For children, one of the most common reactions to divorce is sadness, according to Dr. Lori Rappaport. Children will cry and often act sad as their parents go through a divorce. This sadness can sometimes lead to depression, and those signs should be identified so that professional help can be be sought.
Such signs can include loss of interest in activities, inability to sleep, sleeping too much, suddenly having problems with academics, fighting, or getting in trouble at school for behavioral issues. There are other signs as well.
Some children will actually feel relieved that their parents are getting divorced. In many homes where divorce occurs, there is a high level of emotional conflict. The children of high-conflict parents will often feel relief that the arguments and conflict will be coming to an end in the home.
Likely, there is usually a mix of emotions. They feel sad and relieved. They can experience these feelings back and forth over time as they process the divorce, which usually takes years.
Many children of divorce will also feel frightened because they don’t know what their life is going to look like in the future. Their future is filled with uncertainty. They also will feel angry that their family is changing and that they may have to make major life adjustments, such as a new home or a new school.
It’s normal for children to have these emotions. What is not the norm, and requires intervention, is when children have behavioral issues that affect the way they function in daily life.
At What Age Are Kids Affected by Divorce?
Kids are affected by divorce at any age. Even adults who have their parents divorce later in life can be adversely affected. According to Dr. Rappaport, even babies and toddlers can be affected by divorce. The separation from one parent when they have to go to another parent’s home can cause separation anxiety for a baby or toddler.
Knowing that anyone at any age can be affected by parental divorce means that we must not exclude children when assessing the effects of a divorce. Just because they are old enough to understand does not mean that they automatically have the coping skills to adjust in a healthy and appropriate manner.
The same is true for young children. Just because they are young and do not fully understand what is going on does not mean that they won’t be affected. Major changes in a young child’s routine because of divorce can cause them distress, which can result in things such as regression.
Signs That Your Child Is Not Coping Well
When a child is not coping well with their emotions associated with a divorce, it will typically be seen in their behavior. What they don’t express in their words will usually come out in problematic ways. Their behavior will change, and it is for the worse when they are not coping well with the divorce.
It is normal for a child to have emotions, thoughts, and feelings about divorce. It is common for children (research shows between 20-50% of children of divorce have maladjustment) to have behavioral issues because of divorce. However, behavioral problems and maladjustment are signs that a child is not coping well and that professional intervention, such as counseling, is needed.
Below are some of the more common behavioral issues that arise in children when their parents are going through a divorce and they are not coping well. These are not the only behavioral issues that can present, but are some of the more common.
This behavior is more often seen in younger children. For example, children who are already potty-trained will begin having accidents or wetting their bed at night. They may resume thumb sucking or other babyish behavior that they had previously outgrown. Regression is a sign that a child is not coping well with the situation and some professional help may be needed. For younger children, play therapy can be helpful.
Children who have been achieving their milestones normally and then begin to exhibit delays should be assessed. For example, a baby who sat up and crawled at a normal age of development, but who is now clingy and not walking at 24 months should be taken to their pediatrician for assessment.
Young children who cannot express themselves in words will often show behavioral indications when something is bothering them. For a child going through divorce, some forms of neediness can be normal. They want to spend more time with their parents when they get time with them. They may cry more frequently when they transition from home to daycare or from one parent’s home to the other.
When it comes to the effects of divorce on children, parents need to be aware of the neediness behaviors that can arise. If they become disruptive to daily life, then a child psychologist or counselor may need to be consulted. They will have some solutions and be able to assess a family’s unique situation. Parents must recognize that extreme neediness is not normal, and help should be sought in such a case.
Temper Tantrums or Outbursts
Temper tantrums are normal for children under the age of five. In fact they are quite common for 2-3 year olds. However, in some cases where a divorce is happening, the tantrums become far more frequent. For children over the of five, they can regress and begin having temper tantrums once again. It is an indication that their situation is overwhelming them, and they are having difficulty coping.
For older children, such as teens, they may have emotional outbursts. These outbursts can be characterized with screaming, yelling, obstinance, and a lack of logic and rational thought while they are in this state.
If these behaviors are present outside of the normal age-appropriate temper tantrums, then counseling or professional help should be sought for the child so that they can learn to process their feelings and emotions in a healthy manner.
Getting in Trouble at School
Children who have previously not been trouble makers at school and then begin a pattern of getting in trouble with authority should not be ignored. Their behavior is a way of acting out for attention or as a channel for their emotions. They may be feeling angry about their parents divorce.
When asked about the divorce, they tell their parents they are fine and that everything is okay. They don’t know how to properly express how they are feeling, and they instead repress their emotions. Then, when things get tough at school, they act out by kicking the child’s chair in front of them or pushing their classmates.
They do these behaviors as a channel or avenue for them to get out their anger. However, this is not a healthy way for them to process their anger towards the divorce. They should be taught by a professional how to talk and process their anger appropriately.
Fighting With Other Kids
Along with getting in trouble at school, some children will turn their anger, rage, and stress into aggressiveness toward their peers. They may get in fights and conflict with friends or classmates when, previously, this was never an issue.
Parents should help these children by getting them the help that they need to understand that their feelings are normal and they can talk about it instead of bottling up the anger and then allowing it to explode on others.
When some children don’t cope well with a divorce situation, they can develop eating problems. For teens, this can be a legitimate eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. For younger children it can even manifest as avoidance of food or extreme picky eating that can lead to an eating disorder such as ARFID (avoidant resistant food intake disorder). This can be one of the most dangerous effects of divorce on children as it can lead to serious health issues.
Parents should be aware of their children’s changed behavior, and especially eating patterns that may be detrimental to the child’s health in the long term. For some children this can also include binge-eating. They don’t express their feelings in words, and instead they eat to find a sense of comfort. This can lead to health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure if the behavior becomes severe or pervasive over a long time period.
There are treatment programs and counselors that can specifically help if eating problems begin to manifest as a pattern of behavior. Parents must be vigilant and aware of the eating habits of their children, especially when major life changes, such as a divorce, are happening. It is easier to treat such a problem earlier, before the behaviors and habits become ingrained.
Children of divorced parents can experience insomnia. They can also sleep too much if they are becoming depressed. Their sleep routines should be consistent from one parent’s home to the other so that they don’t develop disruptive sleep problems. If a child does display significant sleep issues, then a pediatrician’s help should be sought for advice.
It is normal for teens to experience some sort of rebellion. However, if that rebellion turns into the form of drug use or running away from home, then professional help must be sought. Risky behavior is a cry for help. Their cry for help should be met with love, care, and a desire to get them the help that they need.
Drop in Academic Performance
Academic performance can fluctuate. However, a severe plummet in grades and academic performance should not be ignored. For example, a child that goes from straight A’s as a motivated student and then drops down to all C’s in one semester’s time is likely having issues coping.
Their academics may be suffering because they are depressed, or they can no longer find the ability to concentrate during class. Parents should help their child, not only with tutoring and academic help alone. The emotional state of their child should be addressed with counseling.
There are likely underlying emotional issues happening when their parents’ divorce, and a significant drop in their academic performance indicates they are not processing their emotions correctly, as it is impeding their academic life.
Suicidal thoughts, and especially any suicide attempts, require immediate intervention and help. When someone expresses that they want to die or that they want to kill themselves, these words must always be taken seriously.
There are some teens and pre-teens who “attempt” suicide as a cry for help. Their intention is not death, but instead it is to get their parent’s attention. Unfortunately, some of the “attempts” are successful and result in death. This is why words of wanting death or to commit suicide should always be taken seriously.
You may think that your child would never follow through, but they may do so simply to prove their point, and will, unfortunately, in some instances, be successful. If you have a loved one who has exhibited suicidal behavior or has threatened suicide, there is immediate help via the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Professionals are becoming increasingly aware of self-injury and self-mutilation behaviors in teens and pre-teens. Teens tend to hide these behaviors and will cut themselves in places that are less visible, such as their upper thighs or stomach. However, some are more apparent and obvious with their behaviors.
Either way, immediate help should be sought if you have a child who is harming themselves. They are not coping with their mental and emotional stress in a healthy way. Self-harm or self-injury can include cutting, carving into their skin, burning themselves, pulling out their hair, and more.
If you think your child may be harming themselves, they need immediate help. Please go to the Crisis Text Line if you want more information about how children inflict self-harm or if you believe your child is harming themselves. You can reach out to immediate help via that website.
When teens or pre-teens start getting into trouble and get themselves arrested, it is a cry for help. Don’t ignore their bad behavior and chalk it up to them just being a teen. If they are experiencing the divorce of their parents, this behavior can stem from emotional turmoil that has gone untreated. Even if they did receive some counseling previously, they may likely need help and intervention once again.
A common sign of distress in children when they are having emotional problems is somatic issues. This usually exhibits in the form of repeated headaches, stomach pains, or other physical ailments. They can be real or imagined.
Often, the emotions drive the pain or physical ailment to become real. For example, a child may complain of stomach pains daily, especially when they have to transition from one parent’s home to the other. What may begin as an invention in their mind can become real as the body responds to the stress and unresolved emotions in problematic ways.
If your child has repeated physical complaints, such as headaches, stomach pains, or other issues, do not ignore their complaints.
Helping Your Child Become Emotionally Intelligent
Emotionally intelligent people are able to express their feelings and process them in a healthy manner so that they don’t repress emotions. Repressing emotions often leads to behavioral problems, such as those discussed previously.
We can help our children learn to become emotionally intelligent by teaching them how to talk about the way that they feel. It is often a learned behavior that does not come through instinct alone. Children should be taught how to appropriately talk about and process their feelings and emotions.
There are many ways parents can teach their children to express their emotions in a healthy manner, including:Help your child identify the name of the feeling they are experiencing. Talk about healthy ways of dealing with emotions, such as talking things out and deep breathing exercises. Be a nurturing connection to your child so that they feel that they can come to their parent when they are experiencing heightened emotions. Resist punishment when they are acting out of emotional turmoil; instead, work to help them talk about their emotions and feelings. Have your child practice talking about their feelings, and praise them when they talk and express themselves.
It is not easy for parent or child to go through the a divorce situation. Parents should be aware of the emotional turmoil that their child is likely going through, so they can encourage them to express it through healthy dialogue and conversations.
The Help Available for Children of Divorce
There are counselors, psychologists, therapists, and play therapists available for help to your family. You can simply google the area where you live and “divorce counseling,” and you should find qualified professionals near you.
Divorce Care 4 Kidsis a support group program with curriculum designed to help children ages 5-12 whose parents have gone through divorce. There are groups that facilitate this program all over the world. The programs tend to be low cost or, in some cases, free.
Do your children need DC4K? Here is what they say on their website about their program:
“Your kids probably feel scared, sad, and confused after your divorce. They know you have been hurt deeply. As a result, they may hide their feelings because they are worried about your happiness or because they do not know how to express their feelings appropriately. DC4K helps them process those feelings and gives them tools to communicate better with you.”
Many children process through divorce without serious problems. However, we can never be sure which children will have issues in handling a divorce. When parents are able to identify behavioral issues and problems that arise during or following a divorce, they can help their child get the help that they need.
Behavioral issues tend to be an indication that the child is not properly processing their emotions. Hope is found in providing the help that your child needs. Being their support system to help them talk about their feelings is helpful, as is seeking professional counseling when behavioral problems arise.
More on the Effects of Divorce on Children
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