Warning Signs: Are Your Kids at Risk for Suffering the Emotional Effects of Divorce?

If you believe your children will be unaffected by your divorce, you'll be surprised to learn that all children of divorce suffer emotional injuries. So the question is not whether they'll be hurt, but how badly they'll be hurt. Here's how to minimize the damage.

By Teri Morrison
Updated: May 16, 2016
emotional effects of divorce on children

When Linda and Steve decided to divorce, they worried about how their eight-year-old daughter Shannon would react to the news. They quickly and amicably finalized the divorce to avoid dragging their child through an emotional battleground. To keep her life from having too many major upheavals at one time, they decided that Shannon and Linda would remain in the family home while Steve moved to an apartment across town. Steve and Linda hoped that if her school routine and social connections weren’t disrupted, the transition to a new family situation would be easier on her emotionally.

Eight months later, Shannon seems to have adjusted well to the divorce. “Sometimes, I think Shannon is coping with our new living arrangements better than I am,” says Linda. “She never causes a problem for either me or her father. In fact, she seems more helpful around the house than before the divorce – I never have to remind her to clean her room anymore, for example, or that it’s her turn with the dishes.”

Jennifer wishes she were half as lucky with her eight-year-old son, Sammy. She and her ex-husband’s divorce proceedings mirror those of Linda and Steve, yet Sammy’s reaction to the divorce is almost the exact opposite of Shannon’s. “I can’t seem to reach Sammy,” says Jennifer. “His grades are slipping in school, he lashes out at both me and his father over the smallest things, and he often refuses to do his chores. The hardest part for me is watching my bright, happy-go-lucky son turn into a moody, angry little boy.”

You’d probably agree that Sammy – and probably his parents – need some counseling to help him adjust to his parents’ divorce. You’d probably also agree that Shannon is every divorcing parent’s dream: a child who seems to accept her parents’ divorce with little or no fuss. However, while Sammy might seem as if he’s headed to detention hall for life, Shannon may be the one who’s more in need of counseling.

Generally speaking, children of divorce fall into three basic categories: 

  1. “Angels” (who hope that their parents will get back together if they’re on their best behavior)
  2. “Devils” (who are acting out to draw attention to themselves and to give their parents a common cause: fixing the kid’s problems)
  3. “Normal Kids” (who keep their heads down, don’t ask questions, don’t act up during or immediately after the divorce).

Parents often overlook kids in the third category because they want to believe that their kids are fine with the divorce. However, some of these kids could be in either shock or denial: they don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. These kids may be like slow-burning fuses that blow up eventually. 

Of course, there are exceptions. Some kids are more resilient than others, and with love and support from and frequent access to both parents (who have established a cooperative, respectful co-parenting relationship), they cope with divorce really well. 

“Normal” Adjustment

Experts say that it should take about a year for children to come to terms with their parents’ divorce; they may still have feelings of sadness or anger, but they should be coping well with those feelings. Although the progression will vary depending on their ages, by the end of the first year after the divorce, your children should have: 

  • dealt with their feelings of loss due to the divorce
  • dealt with any feelings that they were rejected or deserted by one of their parents
  • accepted that the family will no longer be living together
  • accepted that you won’t be reuniting with their other parent
  • removed themselves from adult conflicts
  • returned to a normal interest in themselves and their activities
  • stopped blaming themselves for the divorce. 

If you moved as a result of the divorce, they should have adjusted to your new home and their new school, and have made some new friends.

When to Get Help

One bad grade on a school test doesn’t mean you need to make an appointment with a family counselor. Not all of your kid’s problems are going to be a result of your divorce: one temper tantrum, one fight at school, or one incident of bedwetting isn’t necessarily linked directly to the divorce. These kinds of things can happen to any child in any family situation. So before you start panicking that your child has become psychologically damaged for life, Google “normal child psychological development” and read some relevant articles. Search the “Divorce and Children” category on this website; these resources will help you understand the difference between normal and problematic behaviors.

Discipline problems are usually what spur parents to seek professional help for their kids. These problems can stem from your child’s inability to sort out his/her feelings or to adjust to the divorce – or it might just mean that your child lacks good coping skills. A child’s bad behavior can result from fear, hostility, or insecurity, and it’s a sign that your child needs more positive attention. Children who don’t receive positive parental attention try for any kind of attention, even if it’s negative: they would rather misbehave and get yelled at than not get any attention at all.

Any extreme deviation from a child’s normal behavior may be a sign that he or she has been affected by the divorce: wild behavior in a previously quiet child, or a once-sociable child who now refuses to come out of his or her room, for example.

Although you shouldn’t wait forever to seek professional help, if their adjustment problems aren’t severe, you should give your kids six months to a year to get over the divorce.

Consider seeking professional help if your child is:

  • doing uncharacteristically badly in school for three or four months, even after you’ve consulted his or her teachers and/or school counselors
  • losing friends because he or she is acting in an unusually aggressive manner
  • showing uncharacteristic, intense anger towards others; this could be anything from temper tantrums to overreacting in minor situations
  • developing prolonged mood swings that range from extreme hostility to extreme affection
  • showing unrestrained grieving for an absent parent or for “the way things used to be”
  • showing other radical changes in behavior, such as truancy or fighting at school, cheating, lying, or stealing
  • developing physical ailments, such as stomach or headaches, sleep problems, eating disorders, or alcohol or drug abuse.

If a child internalizes his or her feelings about the divorce, then it’s much more difficult to know if he or she is having problems coping. In fact, a child in this situation may not show any outward signs of trouble until years later. In cases like this, a school teacher, guidance counselor, family doctor – someone your child likes and trusts – may have more luck than you in trying to discern what’s really going on with your child. 

Helping Children Cope with the Emotional Effects of Divorce

While some children make it through their parents’ divorce relatively easily, others can feel the after-effects of a divorce for months and even years later, suffering socially, emotionally, and academically. The reasons some children cope better than others are as varied as the children themselves. However, research indicates that the lasting emotional effects of divorce on children usually occur when a divorce is particularly difficult. If parents are fighting and are filled with anger and hurt, they generally don’t supply their kids with the kind of consistent care they need – especially at emotionally trying times.

The best way to help your children cope is to agree to keep the hostility and bitterness to a minimum before, during, and after the actual divorce proceedings. Reassure them that although there are going to be changes in their lives, the changes won’t all be bad.

You can’t force your kids to feel happy, and you shouldn’t try to short-circuit their grieving process. Provided with support, love, and consistent care, most children eventually adjust to divorce by themselves. 

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October 03, 2014

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