While divorce can be very stressful for adults, it is often the children who suffer as a result of this major disruption in their lives. It is important to know that each child reacts differently to their parents’ divorce. Some suffer from extreme anger or destructive behaviors, while others experience emotional sensitivity or guilt. Some children begin to have difficulty in school. Other children show signs of emotional regression. It is important for divorcing parents to pay attention to signs of struggle in their children and to get help for them, when necessary.
Some signs to look out for are as follows:
Extreme anger and destructive behaviors
Children going through a divorce often feel as though their entire world has been turned upside down. They might not have the skills to handle these new feelings, and end up lashing out against their parents, siblings, or friends. Teenagers without the necessary coping skills might resort to drug or alcohol use to manage their angry feelings. They might begin to smoke or vape as a way to channel their anger.
Emotional sensitivity and guilt
Children whose parents are divorcing might find themselves experiencing a combination of feelings, such as confusion, denial, worry, sadness, or despair. They might be overly sensitive to criticism and experience a reduction in self-esteem. Many children find themselves feeling guilty and wondering if their behavior was the cause of the divorce.
Poor academic performance
Some children experience academic difficulties when their parents are divorcing. Their confusion and anxiety over the pending divorce might impair their ability to focus in class. They might find themselves on edge and have a difficult time managing distractions. Their grades might decline, which could lead to negative feelings about themselves.
Some children experience a regression in their behaviors during or after their parents’ divorce. This is demonstrated by new behaviors that are not developmentally appropriate for the child’s age. For example, some children might begin bedwetting or revert to thumb-sucking behaviors. Some children might find other more immature ways to soothe themselves.
In order to minimize the potential harm to children, parents going through a divorce can do the following:
Pay attention to changes in behavior
Parents going through a divorce should keep an eye on their children for any changes in their behavior. If possible, they should communicate with each other about what each parent is seeing when they are with the children. Communicating with teachers, coaches, and other important adult figures in the children’s lives is also a helpful way to track any new behaviors that might have arisen as a result of the divorce.
Validate children’s feelings
Children going through divorce need to know that all of their feelings are valid. Parents should sit with their children and allow them to express any emotion that comes up. By showing their children that all of their feelings are normal and welcome, children going through divorce will learn how to process their emotions in a safe space.
Avoid involving the children in the divorce
When parents discuss the divorce or disparage the other parent in front of the children, this can lead to extreme suffering on behalf of the child. It is important to recognize that children are not parties to the divorce; they are innocent bystanders that continue to need love and support from each parent during this stressful time.
Enlist the help of a professional when necessary
When parents need additional help in supporting their children, they should contact a therapist who is trained in working with children of divorce. An experienced child counselor can help children process their feelings, improve their communication skills, and build coping skills to assist them during this difficult time and onwards.
When parents divorce, it is important to keep an eye on the children for any changes in behavior. With love and support from both parents, and the help of a trained professional if needed, children of divorce can learn how to cope with the many feelings they are experiencing and learn new ways to thrive.
Author: Robin Horvitz, MHC Intern