It’s hard enough going through a separation or divorce as an adult, but it can be even more difficult for kids. The breakdown of your relationship will undoubtedly impact your child’s emotional and psychological development – how much is dependent on how the situation is handled. Below, we discuss the emotions and behavioral changes kids may experience and the potential impact on their development. Knowing these can help you give your child a safe, positive environment in which they can continue to flourish.
How Separation Affects Children Emotionally
Regardless of age, toddlers to teens will, in some form, experience some or all of the following emotions after witnessing a divorce or separation of their parents1:
Watch for signs of an anxiety problem – it might manifest as trouble with sleeping, restlessness, or fatigue.2
Sense of loss: It isn’t just the loss of the joint parental unit and home, but their world as they know it.
Anger: It’s natural to want to find someone to blame or take their anger out on. As their parent, that may likely be you.
Guilt: Children may even blame themselves for being in some way responsible for your separation. This can translate to feelings of guilt and worry.
Fear of being abandoned: The separation of the family may have been an unthinkable event for your child. But now that it’s happened, they might fear that the other parent will leave them as well. This fear of being alone is a very real one for your child.
Insecurity: A part of the insecurity a child has is linked to the sense of rejection they feel when one parent moves out. It’s as if they have been personally rejected by that parent.
Being torn between parents: Your child may feel like they have to choose between two sides. This can leave them feeling torn and confused.
Irritability: A child may become more cranky or irritable than they normally are. This is a sign of anxiety.3
Anxiety and depression: Some children may show signs of depression or anxiety.4
Emotional maturity: Sometimes, if the experience is handled right, a child may actually emerge stronger from the separation of their parents. They might take on more responsibility and also become more emotionally mature than their peers.5
Fussiness And Stranger Anxiety In Young Infants
Very young infants will not comprehend the situation but will pick up on changes in your and your partner’s behavior. These are some ways this could affect their own behavior6:
Mirroring your behavior: This is the stage at which they learn behavior and tend to mirror the feelings of those around them. It’s hard for them to express themselves, so you’ll want to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
Fussiness and disinterest: Unusual fussiness and disinterest in things or people could be their way of showing that they are uneasy. This may happen because you and your spouse are low on energy or depressed yourself and find it hard to be as upbeat and responsive to your child as before.
Stranger anxiety towards one parent: Between 6 and 8 months babies begin to develop stranger anxiety. Should one parent be less visible to them, they might even develop stranger anxiety toward them. The only way around this is to have regular face time with the child.
Separation Distress And Insecurity In Older Infants
Infants older than 8 months and younger than 18 months recognize and remember their parents. Here’s what you may notice in your older infant7:
Separation distress: Separation anxiety kicks in at 8 to 12 months. This means that when one parent has to leave or be replaced by the other, it can be a time of much agony for the child. Expect screaming and crying, but do your best to calm your child. It may be difficult for them to comprehend why they must be away from one parent.
Insecurity, confusion, and fear: Insecurity may be compounded when a child witnesses arguments or negativity between parents or when one parent talks negatively about the other in their presence. Doing so can make them scared or confused.
Non-compliance: Demanding or bossy behavior may also reflect the anxiety a child is facing. A normally well-behaved child might become non-compliant.8
Tantrums And Digestive And Sleep Trouble In Toddlers
Toddlers may experience extreme mood shifts, from being happy one moment to angry the next, as they try and grapple with their situation and insecurity about who will help them with their needs. Here’s what you might notice in your toddler9:
Tantrums: Toddlers may act out, cry more, or even throw tantrums. They may be fussier or more quiet than normal. Some kids might bite, hit, or kick, and refuse to follow instructions.
Sleeping problems: Some children may find it hard to fall asleep. When they do, they may sleep fitfully, wake easily, or have frequent nightmares.
Babyish behavior: Your toddler may start sucking their thumb or suddenly want to be fed like when they were younger. Some toddlers lose bladder or bowel control.
Digestive problems and stomach aches: Your child may lose his or her appetite. Some children complain of physical symptoms like stomach aches – all a function of the stress they are experiencing.
Clinginess And Disobedience In Young Children
If a young child is insecure, they may start behaving younger than their actual age. They may also experience the following:
Clinginess: Some children may become clingy and fuss or cry when separated from you.10
Disobedience: Others may become disobedient and non-compliant, even if they were well-behaved children before the separation.11
Nightmares and bedwetting: If your child is splitting their time between parents, they may have this problem before or after staying with the parent who isn’t living in the family home.12
School grades may suffer: The divorce or separation can also reflect in a child’s schoolwork. They may have issues focusing and their grades may drop.13
Relationships And Schoolwork Suffer In Teens And Adolescents
Teenagers who go through a parent separation or divorce also experience a lot of distress about the situation, even if they seem to be coping okay.
Becoming withdrawn: Some adolescents might become very quiet and withdrawn, shying away from social activity and engaging in family events or day-to-day life. Their social relationships with friends and family may start to suffer.
Misbehaving or slipping grades: On the flip side, some teens may act out and start misbehaving. If you notice your child’s grades slipping, it could be because they find it hard to concentrate at school.14
Becoming more responsible: Your teen may take on more responsibilities in the house to help compensate for an absent parent. This can be a positive effect, as they mature faster than their peers and broaden their skill set.15
How Separation Impacts A Child’s Development
How you handle the divorce and split in your child’s early years – even if they’re just infants – matters. Done right, you could help your child through this difficult time without any long-term repercussions. However, if your child doesn’t receive the extra care they need, they may face some of these issues all the way into adulthood.
Trust issues: If your infant or young child doesn’t feel supported, they may grow up not being able to do the same for others. Your child may also find it hard to trust other people. They may also develop learning problems by grades 4 to 6 because their needs for learning have not been fully met.16
Personality issues and aggression: Sometimes a child’s self-awareness may be dulled if they see themselves as either a victim or victimizer. Some children could have borderline personality issues that make them more rigid as adults. Ability to deal with and control aggressive impulses could also be impaired in adulthood.17
Interpersonal and social skills: If their life at school, home, or with friends is disrupted, it might lead to relationship issues as an adult.18 Often, in situations where the child ends up staying with the mother, the father retreats into the background and is less visible in the child’s life. This makes the relationship with the father very transactional. On the other hand, if the father stays actively involved, the child has a better chance of growing into a well-balanced adult.19
Antisocial behavior and suicidal tendencies: If your teen feels especially helpless and like they have no control over their life, they need extra support and love. Failing to receive this or feeling the absence of a strong emotional support can sometimes cause teens to become suicidal. While not everyone goes to this extreme, antisocial behavior is likely.20
Lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression and substance abuse: If your split is acrimonious, your kids may experience long-term self-esteem problems. One study found that adults who experienced a parental split and subsequent alienation before turning 15 experienced higher rates of depression and felt more insecure in their adult relationships. They showed less self-sufficiency as adults, and a link to alcohol abuse was also found.21
While all these possible effects of a divorce can be unsettling to hear, being aware is the first step to helping your child adjust to this change. Also, take heart from the fact that there’s plenty you can do to help your child cope better with a divorce.
|↑1, ↑10, ↑11, ↑12, ↑14||Divorce or separation of parents – the impact on children and adolescents: information for parents, carers and anyone who works with young people. Royal College of Psychiatrists.|
|↑2||Anxiety Disorders. The Nemours Foundation.|
|↑3, ↑4, ↑8||Lee, Catherine M., and Karen A. Bax. “Children’s reactions to parental separation and divorce.” Paediatrics & child health 5, no. 4 (2000): 217-218.|
|↑5, ↑15||Demo, David H., and Alan C. Acock. “The impact of divorce on children.” Journal of Marriage and the Family (1988): 619-648.|
|↑6, ↑7, ↑9||Helping Infants and Toddlers Adjust to Divorce. University of Missouri Extension.|
|↑13||Lee, Catherine M., and Karen A. Bax. “Children’s reactions to parental separation and divorce.” Paediatrics & child health 5, no. 4 (2000): 217-218.|
|↑16, ↑18, ↑20||Hois, S. “Effects of separation and loss on children’s development.” Family Development Resources. Staženo 5 (1997).|
|↑17||[Hois, S. “Effects of separation and loss on children’s development.” Family Development Resources. Staženo 5 (1997).|
|↑19||Amato, Paul R. “Father-child relations, mother-child relations, and offspring psychological well-being in early adulthood.” Journal of Marriage and the Family (1994): 1031-1042.|
|↑21||Baker, Amy JL, and Naomi Ben-Ami. “To turn a child against a parent is to turn a child against himself: The direct and indirect effects of exposure to parental alienation strategies on self-esteem and well-being.” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 52, no. 7 (2011): 472-489.|