While you will certainly be preoccupied with the division of money and property and the whirlwind of emotion that comes with ending a marriage, your child can be equally preoccupied with your divorce — but from an entirely different perspective. To your child, the normalcy of his home life has been shattered by divorce, and a new normal has been put into place without his involvement or approval.
They see less of either parent, and have to go someplace special — a new home or a temporary apartment — to see one of their parents. When they are with one parent, they hear comments about the other that they do not know how to process.
Anxiety and guilt
Sometimes one parent might give them a message to tell the other, and the other might have an emotional reaction to the message, potentially leaving the child feeling guilty for delivering it. When parents are both in the same place, they might bicker and snap at each other in front ot them, making them feel anxious. If they argue about the child, the child might feel guilty.
Anger and resentment
Over time, the child can turn some of this guilt into anger and resentment at one parent or the other — or sometimes both. Pulled between the two, and feeling as though he’s supposed to be loyal to one parent and angry at the other, he may become withdrawn and uncomfortable with both of you.
Pressures from societal culture make it increasingly difficult for each parent to be as involved as they would like in a child’s activities. For example, schools often send newsletters, e-mails, and information to one parent instead of both, effectively screening out the other parent from participating in parent-teacher conferences, field trips, sports, concerts, and any other events in which the child is involved. This is not deliberate, but it’s a bureaucratic norm that forces one parent to keep the other informed about the child’s activities — something that isn’t always likely to happen regularly or in a timely manner.
Conflict and more confusion
This can result in one parent coming to every event while the other is effectively left out. All these conflicting occurrences in a child’s life can communicate that one parent is more interested than the other, and that one parent is more at fault than the other in creating the need for divorce.
When you are struggling with the day-to-day realities of divorce — financial challenges, logistics, and operating as a single parent at least part of the time — it can be difficult to realize that your top priority, your children, may have slid out of focus. It’s important to check in with your children to find out how they are dealing with all these changes, and to let them know how much you care about them. Demonstrate to them that you are open to talk about anything they like.
Plan a family afternoon or evening when you and your children do a craft project at home or have a movie night with ice cream. You do not need to be extravagant — you need to be available, and you need to reassure your children that you love them and are ready to listen to them.
11 signs of emotional distress to watch out for
Parents tend to wait until their children exhibit signs of stress or inappropriate behavior before they believe that their children may be having difficulty coping with the upheaval in their lives.
To delay addressing children’s issues with the divorce, however, can mean greater and more damaging changes when the stress finally surfaces. Before your child acts out or descends into depression, connect with a mentalhealth professional who can be a sounding board for your child. A social worker or therapist who specializes in children and families can give your child a safe place to vent her frustrations, and to ask questions she might not feel she can ask you.
Working with a mental health professional, your child can develop coping skills that she can’t get from you while your own life has turned upside down. You will do your child a great service by providing a neutral space and the guidance of a caring and impartial adult. If the conflict in your home has gone on for some time before you and your spouse finally decided to divorce, your child already may have developed behavioral or emotional problems. Some of the signs of these issues include:
- Falling grades:
When a good student suddenly loses interest in school, or the teacher reports that homework assignments are not being completed, it’s a sure sign that something else is on the child’s mind.
- Outbursts of anger:
Children often have not yet developed constructive ways to express frustration and anger, so they keep quiet until they seem to explode with rage.
- Aggressive behavior:
Stemming directly from anger issues, children may pummel a classmate, throw toys or rocks, hit or kick another child at the playground without provocation, or punch or break objects.
- Withdrawing from the family:
Your child may spend a lot more time alone in her room than she did before the divorce.
- Withdrawing from friends at school:
If a naturally social child suddenly has no plans with friends for weeks at a time or drops out of extracurricular activities, she could be responding to pent-up anger and stress.
- Silence around the house:
Your child may decide that it’s better to say nothing at all than to tell you what’s on her mind. She may stop answering questions, refuse to respond to your inquiries about her time with the other parent, and ignore you when you are in the room with her.
A child who has trouble sleeping night after night has more on her mind than she can handle. Check with your pediatrician to rule out a medical problem, and talk with your child to find out what goes through her mind when she’s alone in the dark.
More than moping around the house, clinical depression brings a sense of hopelessness and despair that can be crippling to a child or an adult. If your child seems to be taking the divorce particularly hard, has crying bouts, seems listless and disinterested in any activities, and loses her sense of fun, she may be experiencing depression.
Your child may have panic attacks involving shortness of breath, dizziness, shaking hands, stomach pain, and other symptoms. These can be accompanied by irrational fears of everyday things, such as riding in the car or leaving the house. While there may be no physical problem, your child is not “faking it” — her symptoms are real and very frightening to her.
- Substance abuse:
Drugs and alcohol can seem like easy, fast routes to escape a bad situation, so it’s not uncommon for older children to seek out these types of temporary remedies to ease their stress and unhappiness.
- Cutting or eating disorders:
Some of the most insidious behavioral problems in young people stem from anger directed inward. If your child starts losing weight and refusing to eat, you need to seek professional help as soon as you can. If you see strange scars on arms or legs or find a razor blade or other weapon in a backpack or bedroom, bloody tissues or a bloodstained washcloth, or other signs of treatment of a wound, a meeting with a doctor or a psychologist is your best recourse.
If you see any of these symptoms of stress, anxiety, and anger, it’s time to talk with your child and find out what she’s thinking and feeling. You may hear things that are painful for you, particularly if she is angry with you for your role in making these changes happen. You may feel as though your child can’t understand what happened to cause the divorce, or that she doesn’t know how hard it’s been on you.
This is not the time to say, “You think it’s hard on you? You can’t possibly know how tough this is for me,” or anything else that will make your child feel guilty for expressing her feelings. Your child needs to be honest with you, so do your best to listen and help her express herself.
Be understanding and resist the urge to blame
Understand that your child’s reaction to divorce is much like grief. There’s been an enormous change in the life she knew, and she may not like the way her new life is turning out. When a child expresses stress or frustration as a result of a divorce, it is also not the time to throw that expression in your ex-spouse’s face. Blaming your ex for your child’s stress is exactly what your child fears you will do, and it is likely one of the reasons she has not expressed herself up to this point: She does not want to cause any more friction between her parents by admitting that she struggles to cope with your divorce. Instead of chastising your child or your ex-spouse, this is the time to say to your child, “I understand how you feel, because I feel a lot of that, too. I’m glad you’ve told me, so we can think about how to get through this together.”
Understand that you can’t fix everything with one conversation. In the coming days, however, you can begin to address your child’s stress and anxiety by eliminating some of the behaviors that cause the stress in the first place.