7 Behaviors Parents Should Look Out for in Children During Divorce

A small child covering their ears during an argument

Children often act out during a divorce. Some behaviors are more noticeable than others, meaning subtle changes in your child can slip past you if you’re not looking for them. It’s not surprising how this can happen.

When you go through the divorce process, it may feel as though your world is moving a mile a minute, and you’re struggling just to keep up. Divorce involves rebuilding your life, home, and sometimes career, all while negotiating the dissolution of your marriage. Because of this, it’s easy not to be cognizant of how your children are holding up.

The trouble is divorce can have a major impact on children, putting them at risk for mental health issues, behavioral problems, and difficulties in the classroom. These effects can be long-lasting and follow children into adulthood. That’s why it’s so important to address issues your children face as soon as they appear. The key is to recognize them. 

Below are seven behaviors your children may display during your divorce that you should look out for.

1. Acting out at home or school.

Before your divorce, your child might have been obedient to authority and got good grades. But now, your child has started to be a disciplinary problem and is no longer excelling academically. Or perhaps your child is not getting along with other students at school. Or at home, your child might have started to fight with their siblings more than in the past or throw tantrums.

Acting out is a classic hallmark for children of divorce. It often means your child wants your attention and is doing anything they can to get it. With your child having to deal with their parents no longer being married and you being busy dealing with your divorce, it’s often necessary to take deliberate measures to check in with your child to see they’re getting the emotional care and affection they need from you. 

To do this, think about making a mental note to have a real conversation with your kids every day when you’re both not distracted. Put it on your calendar if you have to. Time spent driving in the car, meals, or bedtime is often a good time to connect. If you don’t get a response the first time, keep trying. The walls your child has put up might take time to tear down.

2. Suddenly gaining or losing weight.

When adults face emotional turmoil in their lives, they may use alternative means to find comfort, such as eating. Children are no different.

As parents argue about their divorce, children may turn to food for the comfort they crave. Alternatively, your children’s stress and negative feelings about your divorce may push your child away from food.

A dysfunctional relationship with eating could cause your child various physical and emotional health problems as a result. Pay attention to what your children are putting into their bodies.

3. Extreme mood swings or regular emotional outbursts.

If your once relatively calm and controlled child now experiences severe mood swings, regularly throws temper tantrums, or starts to cry uncontrollably, your child may be struggling to deal with their emotions resulting from your divorce.

Such behavior can also be a sign of an eating disorder or drug use. It’s yet another reason why you need to get to the root of the changed behavior as soon as possible.

4. Pretending to get sick.

Your child, who used to have perfect (or near-perfect) attendance at school, now constantly feels sick. Whether it’s a stomachache, headache, or another non-descript ailment, it’s keeping your child from one of the mainstays of their childhood.

Feigning illness could be your child’s way of getting attention from you. Or it could be a manifestation of their depression. Either way, you need to address it promptly before the problem snowballs — they fall behind in their schoolwork, lose friendships, or become more depressed.

5. Sleeping problems.

When you’re dealing with a massive amount of stress or emotional turmoil, it can disrupt your sleep schedule. This applies to kids, too.

If you find your child who used to sleep well is struggling to fall asleep at night, stay asleep, or wants to sleep in your bed with you, they might be feeling stressed or anxious about your divorce. Your child might also be seeking the comfort and security they aren’t getting during the day by trying to share a bed with you at night. 

Undeniably, this behavior is detrimental to them, but it can also be detrimental to you. To be strong for your child and yourself, you need to have an uninterrupted sleep at night. 

6. Acting differently with each parent.

When a child transitions from a one-household family to two households, particularly if one parent moves out of the family home to another location, they might perceive this as a form of abandonment and take out those feelings on one or both of their parents.

Divorce is complicated, and children, especially young ones, don’t have the capacity to understand the nuances of your marriage. To them, you’re Mom and Dad, not the husband and wife who were in a marriage that wasn’t working. Children perceive the world in terms of themselves, so if they start treating one parent differently, they might be trying to make a statement.

In general, you want your child to have a strong relationship with both you and your ex. If your child starts acting differently with one of you, it’s time to intervene and help your child understand their changing family situation better. A mental health professional can assist.

7. Refusing to follow normal routines.

Between school, activities, and homework, children typically follow a routine. They rely on it for stability, even crave it.

But if, as a result of the divorce, your child begins to reject that routine and act disobediently, it could stem from a host of emotional problems brought about by your divorce.

One possibility could be that your child feels they’ve lost control of their life due to the divorce and can only seem to control their schedule. Or it could be depression from the divorce, making it such that they no longer wish to follow their routine.

Whatever the reason, not following a routine could hinder your child academically, emotionally, and socially. Problems can only spiral from there. 

Your best course of action is to keep a watchful eye while staying actively involved with your child as you did before your divorce. Or, if need be, to step up your game. Children need to know you’re there for them, which begins with showing them you are.

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