The impact of divorce on children can be quite devastating and often children show signs and symptoms that they are feeling distressed. Knowing how to identify these signs can assist you in getting help for your child early.
What to Look for:
Changes in Academics: when experiencing stress at home, many children will also exhibit changes in other areas of their life. A drop in their grades due to their inability to focus may signify a child is stressed. Many children question where they will be when they go home or worry about whether or not Mom and Dad will get into a fight at the exchange. Going between parents may also create gaps in ensuring homework assignments are being completed. Parents may not communicate with one another about big projects at school resulting in a poor grade or need for make up work.
TIP: During your time with your child, ask them about school, work on tasks within their grade level, ask the other parent about projects and assignments. Parents who have high conflict can stay in touch with the child’s teachers and explore areas in which the child struggles. Ensure you and the other parent have a consistent schedule and communicate with the child about expectations.
Aggressiveness: separation and divorce are difficult for children to understand. The two most important people in their lives are no longer with each other or may be in conflict. Children can sense their parents’ mood, even when parents believe they are masking their true feelings. Children may take out this aggression on other children or even themselves. Many young children will have an increased number of tantrums or playground fights. Adolescents express their anger verbally, yelling at the parent or siblings and often have anger towards one or both parents. Many of these children turn to their friends for support and sometimes are unable to manage the anger they feel and turn their feelings inward.
TIP: Talk to your child about their feelings and normalize the anger. Let them express how they feel and don’t become defensive or angry, just listen. Come up with ways they can channel that anger such as through sports, physical activity, art, or music. Let them know that it is okay for them to feel angry and that you want to support them to feel less anger. Let the children’s teachers or daycare providers know about the separation to create more adults who can support the child when they become angry. Anger is a normal emotion for children dealing with a divorce and it’s important to teach your child that they can successfully navigate their emotions.
Taking Sides: Children may feel they have to choose sides between parents. Children often will tell both parents they don’t want to see the other parent or share negative things in the other household in an effort to please that parent. However, children love both of their parents and feel torn and uncomfortable choosing sides. Many times parents either unintentionally or intentionally put the child in the middle and ask the child about their preference between parents. Even when a child feels they are pleasing one parent, they inherently know they are hurting the other parent.
Tip: Never ask your child their preference; this makes them feel uncomfortable. Never talk badly about the other parent. Children view themselves as half of each parent and if they hear a parent speaking badly about another parent they may turn negative feelings inward or question their relationship with the parent asking questions such as “if I have been told I am funny like my dad and mom says my dad’s humor is disgusting and inhuman, then am I disgusting?” The best thing you can do as a parent is highlight the other parents’ strengths. Tell your child the positive skills or traits that remind you of the other parent. This helps the child to feel less disjointed when parents have conflict.
Difficulty with Transitions: Going from one parents’ house to another parents’ house is HARD. Often there are different rules and expectations within each home and once they get comfortable at one house they then have to return to the other house and re-adjust. Somatic complaints such as a headache or stomach ache when it is time to go to the other parents’ house are prevalent in children who experience difficulty with transitioning. These children may cry and resist the exchange. Many adolescents prefer to primarily stay at one home while others may or may not have a preference as to with which parent they live.
TIP: Prepare your child before all exchanges. Depending on your child’s age and personality you may want to prepare them a day or week ahead and show them on a calendar which days they will be with either parent. Children who are young may require preparation the hour before the exchange to talk about the exciting things they will do with the other parent. For all children, assist their transition by ensuring that they are not engaged in a fun activity prior to the exchange, rather have them take a bath, eat a meal, or go grocery shopping.
About the Author: Dr. Kanaventi is the founder of KaNun Wellness and she is passionate about helping families and individuals develop effective strategies to improve connection and increase resilience. Dr. Kanaventi has extensive experience working with families of separation and divorce through the Los Angeles Superior Court and providing individual and reunification services. Dr. Kanaventi is committed to using a creative, compassionate, curious, and collaborative approach to helping families and individuals in developing the resiliency necessary to face challenging situations.