Whether it was a good decision, a necessity of survival or an unfortunate surprise, divorce affects each of us in more ways than we often realize. Our marriage touches and influences so many things in our life. It affects the way we relate to ourselves and our family, the way we work and play, the way we see the world, the things we value or believe in, and so much more. Because this relationship is so vital to us, when we lose it, no matter the reasons, its repercussions can be far-reaching. This goes equally for our kids.
Children often find themselves the silent victims of divorce, too young or too worried about what their parents might think, to fully express what they feel about it all. They can go weeks, months, even years, stuffing down their emotions, and never really getting the answers or the resolution they need.
Their inner conflict, combined with the external conflict waged between divorcing or already divorced spouses, can make children feel like outsiders, like the separation is somehow their fault, or that life will never feel normal again.
These thoughts and feelings, especially when children aren’t receiving the support they need, can drive them toward behaviors and choices that are understandable given their circumstance, but harmful when they linger.
For children of divorce, anger and frustration can build, school work can suffer, their relationships with friends and family, and their excitement for once passionate activities and hobbies can fade. They may lash out verbally at family members or seclude themselves away from people.
Strong reactions to significant life changes are normal. It’s okay that children experience large emotions and certain behavioral changes for a time. The problem is when they don’t find the support they need and these changes grow into more permanent fixtures in their personality and actions.
Today, we’re going to discuss a handful of ways divorce can influence a child’s social development and behavior, and then offer a few suggestions on how to better guide and support your kids during this difficult season.
Why is Divorce so Difficult for Children?
While it sounds obvious, children of divorce suffer just as much as we do from the consequences of divorce. Even earlier, marital conflict and a shifting family dynamic can carry a host of negative effects and long-term consequences, some good and many not so good. Too often, we assume that our kids are young and tough and can bounce right back from changes, that they will simply roll with whatever comes their way. Often, when it comes to severed family relationships and intense conflicts between their parents, the adverse effects and emotional impact run deeper than we can imagine.
Our children suffer as much as we do, feel as intensely, and think just as deeply. But tragically for them, they rarely have the ability or knowledge yet to express these things as they’d like to. This leaves them feeling trapped, repressed, and completely out of control.
Let’s look now at a few ways divorce affects children developmentally and behaviorally.
Children Experience Separation Anxiety
When dealing with parental divorce, younger children often experience separation anxiety. Parent-child relationships can suffer tremendously. Kids who are dealing with conflict between parents and or two divorced parents may frequently become clingy and demand to see whichever parent they’re currently not with.
Their routine, something children rely upon for safety and comfort in parent-child relationships, is disrupted or completely changed. This leaves them feeling out of control and unsure of their parent’s love and affections, and worried that they won’t get to be with both parents the way they used to.
Fears of abandonment and a pervasive confusion why they can’t have both parents in one place anymore can remain. It’s important that you and your ex do what you can to establish healthy routines for your child, a schedule they can count on each week. If they expect you to be present on a certain day and during certain times, make it happen.
Remain open with them about scheduling changes. Explain why it’s happening and show them you have a solution or alternative. Make sure to listen well to their concerns and be up for a few extra impromptu phone calls from them. This will help your young ones maintain a meaningful connection with you. Also, work with your family counselor to address this struggle, using the tools and techniques they provide.
Their Grades Might Suffer
Children dealing with the impact of divorce may see a decrease in their academic performance. Studies show that dropout rates increase during this time as well. Academically, you may see a difference in children as young as 6. However, the most significant effects are seen in older children between the ages of 13 and 18.
This is a much broader problem than we may first realize. The real issue isn’t simply that they struggle a bit more for a short season. It’s that certain academic choices can carry long-term consequences as they move into higher levels of education. A poor high school performance can impact what colleges they’re accepted to and what they believe they are capable of as time goes on.
It’s important to work with school counselors, tutors, family therapists, and other advocates, along with caring friends and family, to help maintain your child’s academic career. Ultimately, this won’t come by strong-arming or coercing them into performing better. It’s about doing everything you can to make sure they can communicate their struggles openly, and then find healing and the support they need both in and out of school.
They Sometimes Choose Sides
When married parents fight or decide to get divorced, children often deal with loyalty conflicts. They can feel trapped in the middle. Sometimes they feel the need to adhere to an intense “fairness.” Other times, they will pick sides.
At its worst, whether they are a child or completely grown, they may go through seasons where they completely shut out one parent from their life. Which one they choose may change over time depending on how they’re feeling during a given season.
They Might Engage in Risky Behaviors
No matter what age bracket your children are in, navigating the effects of divorce takes a great deal of love, care, attention, patience, and help. For some children, divorce can spur on risky behavior. This is often an outlet for deep emotions, long-term pain, confusion, and definitely a sense of being out of control. Divorce throws the entire family dynamic out of sync and can leave children feeling as if their world has been destroyed.
They may engage in premature sexual behavior, which puts them not only at risk of diseases, but leaves them vulnerable to abuse or heartache. They are more prone to substance abuse, binge drinking and alcoholism, poor eating habits, avoidance of responsibilities, spending time with the wrong crowd, and various forms of rebellious and self-destructive behavior.
This obviously puts your young ones at risk for several consequences that directly affect their physical health, along with their mental, emotional, academic, and social well-being. It can damage their performance in school, hurt their romantic relationships, scar their genuine friendships, and carry lasting effects on how they parent their own children when the time comes.
They Deal with Depression and Anxiety
Numerous studies show that children of divorce experience higher levels of depression and anxiety. Worries about losing touch with one parent or the other, fears of having to move, change schools or lose their connection to their friends is a very real thing.
The shifting impact of family structure and parental care, worries over a changed socio-economic status, and so much more, leave children more vulnerable to depression, just one of many of divorce’s effects on children.
Depression and anxiety sometimes lead to social difficulties, seclusiveness, struggles with learning and educational attainment, ongoing conflicts within the family, drug and alcohol dependency, acting out sexually or relationally in negative or harmful ways, and a decreased social circle and group of friends. This can have its own long-term effects, as children don’t learn certain social skills, coping mechanisms, emotional skills, and relationship dynamics needed for an effective adult life.
Long-term depression also leads to a greater risk of certain diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, chronic pain, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and other health problems.
Also, living everyday depressed and anxious is a tough way to go through life. Everything is harder and hope can feel far away. It’s important to stay connected as much as possible with your kids. Don’t hover; they still need space and solitude. But stay present and engaged in their lives.
Open conversations regularly. Take them on outings. Help facilitate their time with the better friends in their social circle. Work to decrease their sense of family upheaval and disconnection by always keeping communication lines open and facilitating enjoyable times together as a family.
Lastly, you’ll want to work closely with a trusted family counselor and/or child psychologist to help your young ones express themselves freely and find the healing and growth they need to enjoy life and build a strong future.
You can also stay informed yourself, by reading books on the subject along with magazines and professional academic journals like the Journal of Marriage and Family, the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, the Journal of Child and Family Studies, and other respected periodicals.
Children may Experience Regression
What do we mean by this? Well, divorce and the dramatic changes it carries in its wake, is often so traumatic on an unconscious level that some children, especially younger ones, experience certain regressive behaviors to cope with the changes and anxieties.
Otherwise developmentally stable and well-adjusted children may start sucking their thumb again, wetting their bed, throwing tantrums, or find themselves afraid of the dark once more and wanting to sleep with their parent more often.
Helping your child through this time in a loving and affirming manner is key. It’s important to keep certain patterns and routines consistent to help them develop a sense of solidity they can count on. Don’t change everything up just to accommodate these unconscious behaviors.
You need to positively encourage the right actions. However, you should also remain compassionate, warm, engaged, and generous with your patience, love, and affection during this time. They need a healthy structure and consistent routines they can count on, but they also need an abundance of generosity, emotional connection, and reassurance.
Helping Your Kids Cope with the Effects of Divorce
It’s clear that when we look at the effects of divorce on children, there is a wide range of potential struggles, and that parenting during divorce can be a complex and often difficult thing to navigate. Helping your children cope with divorce, a shift toward single parenting, questions over family belonging, and difficulties dealing with the heartache, loss, and confusion that accompany a split family, is a much larger task than we often first realize.
It is important to surround yourself and your kids with loving friends and family, qualified mental and physical health professionals, good financial advisors, trusted mentors and community leaders, and an abundance of patience and care. Let’s look at a few ways you can help your child cope with divorce.
Understand that every Child is Unique and Processes Things Differently
This is important. Remember that no kid is the same. What bothers one child will be no big deal for another. What one child brushes off may be world-shattering to someone else. And even while many things may be consequential to a multitude of children, each will have their own way of dealing with the situation, with their thoughts and feelings, and with the changing dynamics around them.
Stay aware of your children as individuals. Be cognizant of verbal and non-verbal cues, and shift your strategy according to what that unique child needs.
Encourage Open Communication
Always make yourself available for your children to talk to. Let them know you are a safe space for their thoughts and feelings, that you want them to feel comfortable being themselves, and that they won’t be judged for what they say.
Listen intently. Don’t interrupt or jump to conclusions. Let them get everything out and then move toward counsel, guidance, direction, and support.
Create Healthy Routines
We’ve certainly mentioned this before a few times, but it can’t be overstated. Children, especially younger ones, rely heavily on a certain level of healthy structure, expected routines and activities. When too many of these expectations are disrupted, our children grow anxious, fear their life is changing without their control, and want desperately to reclaim a sense of stability and equilibrium.
You can counteract some of this by remaining faithful to certain schedules and activities. Keep bedtimes and mealtimes consistent. Continue to facilitate your child’s valued activities like sports, various lessons, time with friends, family days and outings, along with responsibilities like house chores, homework, and other routines.
Do your best to create a regular schedule of parental time and visitation that your children can get used to and count on each week. You can even post a calendar in their room so they can stay aware and engaged in their time with each parent.
Minimize Conflict between You and your Ex
Of course, the two of you will experience disagreements and arguments from time to time. The important this is to deal with these on your own time, not in front of your kids. Children are greatly influenced by family conflict. This certainly applies in the difficult aftermath of divorce.
Arguing in front of your children or talking badly about your ex behind their back with your children will confuse your kids, anger and sadden them, force them to choose sides when they shouldn’t have to, alienate them from their sense of belonging to both parents, and create unnatural conflict and stress in their lives.
Ask for Help
Whether it be the advice or presence of a good friend or mentor, the assistance of family or friends with practical needs and child care, or the professional help of qualified counselors and mediators, getting the help you need is just as important as ensuring your children get the same. You can only care for them if you are healthy.
Give yourself opportunities for rest, small breaks here and there, time away with friends, an afternoon massage, and keep up regular times of rest, fitness, and activities and hobbies that bring you satisfaction.
Helping our children navigate the choppy waters of divorce is a subject that could fill a thousand books and really has already. It’s important to remember that every child is unique. Every kid needs a slightly different approach.
Remain present. Listen well every day. Don’t jump to conclusions. Maintain consistent schedules and activities, but don’t overfill your calendar. Reach out for the help you need from family and friends. Partner with qualified professionals, and take your children’s struggles seriously. They suffer as much as we do during divorce, and they don’t yet have the skills to process or communicate it in the same way we can. Be patient with them and give them all the love and structure they need to find healing and hope.
Torrone Law helps individuals, and families navigate divorce, custody, and adoption with ease and confidence. Connect with us today to learn more about how we can help your family discover a sense of wholeness. We look forward to meeting you.
To learn more about helping children cope with the effects of divorce, check out our frequently asked questions and answers below.
Why is divorce so difficult for children to deal with?
Children are every bit as complex as we are. But they don’t have the same experience, skills, and understanding we do to help them navigate these difficult and confusing emotional and relational seasons. They feel as strongly and think as deeply but often suffer from lack of healthy outlets, proper support, and good habits.
That’s why they need extra care when it comes to dealing with the separation of their parents and family.
What are some areas where divorce affects a child’s social development and behavior?
Divorce often sparks a handful of adverse effects in a child’s life, including increased depression and anxiety, changes in eating and sleeping habits, loss of interest in regular activities, risky behavior, premature sexual activity, drug and alcohol dependency, rebellion, academic struggles, regressive behaviors like thumb-sucking and bed-wetting, and struggles with relating to others and maintaining healthy friendships.
How should parents react to these changes?
It’s important to know that most often, it’s not because of poor parenting. Your place of residence, aspects of your parenting style, and relationship status may have shifted. Your finances, your children’s school, and many of their expectations about family and life may have changed. This is sometimes more traumatic for them than we think it would be.
Their entire world has been turned upside down, dumped out, and then rearranged. They need parents who take their concerns seriously, who will listen intently each day to their thoughts and feelings. They need consistent schedules and a continuation of their healthy activities.
They may need additional help with their academics during this season. And both of you will need an abundance of support from family, friends, and qualified professionals.
Am I a bad parent for getting divorced?
No! It’s important not to think this way. Of course, there are many reasons why couples get divorced, some good, some not so good. At times, it’s a good idea to see if you can work things out and find health and happiness again. Other times, it’s the right choice to move on decisively from a bad marriage, especially when dealing with domestic abuse and other traumatic behaviors.
It’s a good time to give yourself the support you need even while you’re supporting your children. Stay close with friends and family. Take advantage of the services of a great counselor. Engage in satisfying activities you are passionate about, read quality books on the subject, and do your best to give you and your children a connected, abundant and meaningful life.