There’s no getting around the truth – divorce hurts. Even the most stable and emotionally secure people can experience significant emotional turmoil after a split. But the problem becomes even more complex when children are involved.
Parents love their children. We frequently hear parents say that protecting their kids is paramount during divorce proceedings. Unfortunately, the best intentions are sometimes not realized, simply because parents who are divorcing have a lot on their minds. Setting aside the emotional pain they are experiencing, there are many practical concerns demanding attention — finding a place to live, making child custody arrangements and settling finances, to name a few. It’s not surprising that they might miss the signs that their kids are struggling with the divorce as much as they are.
The good news is that studies have shown that the majority of children of divorce grow up to be well-adjusted adults, according to child psychologist Daniel Pickar. But he cautions that children of all ages, even babies, can develop emotional problems stemming from a divorce, starting from the initial stages of separation and persisting even years after the divorce is finalized.
It’s natural to expect some anxiety and depression in your kids during a divorce. Pickar outlines some red flags that may indicate a more serious problem:
- Infants: For babies, sleeping, eating and digestive problems may result from exposure to parents’ hostilities and unpredictable routines. Keeping their schedules as consistent as possible during a split is recommended to ease the transition, according to Pickar.
- Toddlers: Look for “developmental regression,” such as a decline in their progress with potty training. Kids who are just beginning to test the boundaries of newfound independence may become more insecure and clingy as their family situation changes. Tantrums, irritability and aggression may also signal that your toddler is having trouble coping with the divorce.
- Children ages 3-5: This is the age where children really start to blame themselves for their parents’ problems. Look for similar regressions among children of this age, not just with skills such as toilet training but also with motor activity and language development. Anger and trouble switching from household to household are also common, Pickar says.
- Early elementary school-age children: Again, look for regression. Signals of depression may also start to appear in the form of physical complaints, such as fatigue, stomachaches and headaches. This is one way that children may attempt to stay close to their parents. Separation difficulties, moodiness and anxiety are other warning signs.
- Older elementary school-age children: Children of this age may feel torn between their parents, especially if there is a lot of fighting or if parents try to use their children as pawns. Children may turn their feelings of sadness into anger or suffer from low self-esteem.
- Adolescents: The teenage years are difficult for reasons not just related to family problems. Adolescents are experiencing bodily changes and facing their emerging feelings of sexuality, as well as feeling an increasing desire for independence. Look for declining academic performance, depression, anger and “acting out,” and be watchful for the possibility of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and self-injuring through behaviors such as cutting.
If you believe your children are experiencing any of these problems, it is important to talk about them with your ex-spouse and to address the issues as quickly as possible. Early intervention will hopefully help you and your child develop a structured and supportive lifestyle, no matter which household they are calling home.