When parents get a divorce, even when they try to ensure that the kids are not affected, their kids experience more psychological issues than kids whose parents don't divorce. Thankfully, if you are paying attention to how your children are experiencing your divorce, you can work toward mitigating any long-term issues with counseling and good parenting.
A child often cannot tell you that they are experiencing anxiety and stress. Instead, they may talk a lot about headaches, stomach aches, and other aches and pains. They may say that they feel sick when there are no indications that they are. Sometimes this manifests as moodiness too. The main thing is to check in with your kids by verbally letting them know that itís not their fault and that everything will be okay.
For some children, unregulated feelings may manifest as bad behavior. They may seem to purposely do the opposite of what you want them to do. They may act this way with both parents or outside of the house with teachers and peers. Regardless, if this is new behavior for your child, make sure you get help from a professional.
Some kids, especially teenagers, will act out during a divorce by missing school, retreating from life, or even using drugs. Maintaining open communication with your teenager about what is happening, acknowledging that the circumstance is difficult, and making sure they know that they can get help from a professional are all important steps to making children feel supported. Having a person who is not a family member can be helpful, as often children experience torn allegiances between their parents.
For some kids, their issues will show as seeming to have no impulse control. A young child might throw an unusually long tantrum. A toddler might run in the road when they have not done so in the past. An older, school-age child might choose to cut their brother's hair. In acting out, children might make some poor choices. Show compassion during this time. Your children act out because their brains and developmental levels don't allow them to fully process or verbalize the mix of emotions they are experiencing. It's hard enough for adults to do this. How can we expect more of a toddler or grade-schooler?
Parents may discover an onset of new insomnia from their child. This side effect of anxiety and worry is not uncommon for children experiencing stress. Addressing their sense of security is critical to help them through this difficult time. Allowing extra time at bedtime to read an additional story, taking time out to talk about silly things, or even trying some child-centric meditation with your child can be practical tools in relaxing them before bed. Just like adults, if the worrying thoughts can be brought under control before it's time to sleep, they won't be as likely to cause sleeplessness.
The sense of powerlessness is a trigger for depression among humans of all ages, including children. When things happen to you that you have no choices about, it can make you feel helpless. In a divorce, children often feel exceptionally powerless. For some children, this will manifest as depression. If your child is withdrawing, sleeping more than usual, skipping activities they generally enjoy, missing school, getting lower grades, or generally avoiding life, they may be experiencing depression. While most depression resolves over time, it can become dangerous if prolonged and untreated. Make sure you discuss concerns with the child's pediatrician, who may refer your child to a counselor with pediatric depression experience.
Many older children of divorce will turn to drugs, alcohol, and food to fill the void that they're feeling. Blotting out difficult feelings with substances is a shortcut to address problems that they feel powerless to stop. Child and teen substance abuse is not a healthy reaction to stress under any circumstance. While it is easy to chalk up such behavior to "youthful experimentation," when done in the context of battling depression, anger, or loss makes this circumstance far more likely to lead to problematic substance use down the road. Making yourself available for direct talks about drugs and alcohol should be the first line of defense. Modeling healthy behavior is always critical. If the substance use becomes prolonged, a doctor's office would be an excellent starting point for a referral to a specialist.
Change in any kind of family can cause a whole range of feelings from a child. From anger to disappointment to depression, the loss of the "family unit," which they are used to identifying as part of can be difficult. This can be further compounded by learning things about their parents that disappoints. Infidelity by a parent, for example, can cause a loss of respect for that parent that causes the child to struggle with their instinct to hold the parent in high esteem. Assuring your children that you will continue to be there for them can help provide a sense of stability.
Help is Available
Being attentive to your children's behavioral signals is an important part of monitoring their mental health during a divorce. They are experiencing a range of emotions, just like you are. Leaning on those with training and expertise in child psychology can be a key piece of mitigating the long-term effects of a difficult time. Further, making yourself available to talk and listen is perhaps the fastest response you can provide. Acknowledging the big feelings can be validating for your children, versus simply telling them to "cheer up." They need to process too. Whether with you or with a professional, with attention to their needs and what their behavior is telling you, your children will come out of the process with more tools to deal with future adversity.