Signs your children are not coping with the divorce and what to do

Nearly all parents are very concerned that the divorce will “damage” their child in some way and so might look for signs that their child is not coping with the changes.

It is normal for your child to experience difficult emotions during a divorce

Your child will experience sadness as they adjust to seeing both of their parents less. Although your child will inevitably feel sad, part of your job as a parent is to teach them that they can get through the ups and downs of life.  Divorce is another one of the downs they can/must learn to cope with.

Good parenting is key to a good adjustment but even then, some children will not adjust well.  

How do I know whether or not my child coping with the divorce?

While it is normal to expect your child to feel sadness and to take time to get used to the new family set up, there may come a point where the distress and/or sadness is no longer normal.

How do I know if my child has an adjustment disorder?

Adjustment disorder is a formal diagnosis which is defined as an unusually strong or long-lasting reaction to an upsetting event. The word “disorder” can make some people panic that there is something extremely wrong.  Therefore, it might be more helpful to think that your child is having difficulty adjusting to their new situation and that extra help might be necessary.

The triggering event might be a divorce, moving to a new home, starting a different school, a break up, a big life disappointment or a combination of several stressors.  The more changes, the more stressful it is, which is why it is always recommended to try to keep as much the same as possible when divorcing.  It can occur in children and adolescents of any age (and even adults).

A child with the disorder will have a hard time coping with their emotions and may become depressed or anxious.  There may be a number of signs that your child is struggling but the key one to look for is that there is a change of behaviour and that this behaviour is interfering with school life and/or their social life.  

Examples to look out for:

  • Behaviour that’s unusual for them (like a usually extrovert child becoming withdrawn or quiet or a usually placid child becoming aggressive)
  • Excessive mood swings
  • Frequently complaining of physical ailments like stomach aches and headaches (obviously rule out a physical illness first)
  • Changes in appetite (though growth spurts can be a factor here)
  • Nightmares
  • Bedwetting when they’ve been dry for a while
  • Unwillingness to go to school
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased crying spells
  • Isolating themselves from family and friends
  • Getting into trouble for having fights/vandalism, disruptive behaviour
  • ….even becoming a model child can be a sign of adjustment difficulty as the child might feel as though they need to become the responsible adult.

If these symptoms have lasted less than six months after the stressful event, however, it would not be considered adjustment disorder.  If some of these behaviours existed before the divorce, you might also want to seek help.

granddaughter is feeding her grandmother with cherries in the garden

What can I (and my ex) do to help my child adjust?

There are some really simply steps which help establish a good basis for recovery.  

  • Have a healthy lifestyle:

Make sure your child is getting enough sleep, eating healthily, exercising and get them to socialise with you or with their friends.

  • Get out of the house:  

Much like with adults, spending long periods of time on your own, in front of any kind of screen or in bed only makes depression worse.  Therefore it is important to get your child out.  This will be tougher with adolescents.  It might be worth doing something as a family first, contacting their good friends or helping them start a new activity.

  • Show that you are coping:  

How you behave will also be important, try to appear content and in control.  Do not get too emotional in front of your child by crying or becoming too angry.  Also remember not to criticise the other parent.  Modelling healthy behaviour will make the child feel safe.

  • Keep talking – to you, any adult they trust or to a therapist:

It is essential that you keep talking and, even more importantly, listening to them. Be careful not to belittle their worries, no matter how insignificant they seem to you.  So if your ten-year old is not picked for a sport’s team, do not say, “that doesn’t matter”.  Definitely do not try and brush their sadness at not seeing the other parent under the carpet, no matter how hard this is.  Instead acknowledge that they are upset.  

  • Help your child learn ways that they can cheer themselves up:  

Also resist the urge to “fix” the problem but instead help your child to come up with solutions of their own.

What can I do if my child does not want to talk?

Sometimes your child might need encouragement to talk.  One way to open up the discussion is to say what you think is going on.  For example, “You seem angry with me that I have left your father”.  Whatever emotion they feel, you must accept it and simply remind them that you love them and are here for them.    

Get creative about how to stimulate discussion.  Perhaps, watch a topical film/programme/book together that might stimulate discussion, go out just the two of you to a neutral space away from home and keep reminding them it is OK to feel anxious and depressed but that you can help them.

If your child does not want to talk to you, ask them who they might like to talk to, or bring in the adult who you know they trust.  Sometimes the GP can refer your child to a therapist.  However, in the UK, child mental health services are woefully understaffed and children often have to wait a long time.  There might also be a teacher who can help.

Finally, however concerned you are, do not say to your child that you are worried about them as this might make your child feel guilty about causing you stress and therefore less likely to talk. Remember, that you are the strong adult who can handle their distress.  You can get support in your own support network or right here.

More divorce advice here.

Lucy Davis

Lucy Davis is a co-founder of divorceclub.com and a TV Producer. She divorced 6 years ago. She is a passionate advocate for exploring the potential for change and creativity that can result from the trauma of divorce.

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