When Parents Divorce: Understanding Behavioral Changes in Teens and Children

The decision to divorce is not one most parents make easily. In fact, many parents decide not to divorce because of their children. For those parents who decide divorce is the only answer, they need to realize that their children may behave differently during the separation, the divorce proceedings, and after. The behaviors that children exhibit after a divorce may well vary based upon the children’s ages. Obviously, a 3-year-old and a 16-year-old will react differently. Below, you’ll find information on how kids in different age groups may react to divorce and how their behaviors may change.

Children 3-7 Years Old

Toddlers and young children often have a difficult time sorting through their emotions when their parents divorce. In terms of behavior, you may notice that younger children are often crankier or irritable. They may not be able to express why they are acting that way, either. Their emotions are often focused on a fear of being rejected or abandoned and may feel it is their fault the divorce happened.

It is common to see a child this age regress in eating, sleeping, and even talking. He or she may become clingy and when transferring the child from one parent to another, the child could be very emotional. When playing with other children, a young child may become more withdrawn or aggressive. Many of the behaviors a young child exhibits during or after divorce can be the opposite of how a child acted before the divorce.

Children who are a bit older often feel deep sadness, which may be expressed in crying or acting more withdrawn. They may feel that they will lose life’s important things, such as food or their favorite toys. They may hide these things so that they know they will have access to them. To them, if they can lose a parent, it makes sense that they could lose other things that are important. It’s also possible that these children will feel physically ill, suffering from an upset stomach or complaining of frequent headaches.

Children 8-12 Years Old

Kids between the ages of 8 and 12 are usually confused about the divorce because it completely changes everything they knew and depended on. This is an important time for children when it comes to academics and athletics, as these abilities are beginning to develop. Kids this age may also be embarrassed by the divorce and lie to others about where the other parent is, such as on a business trip or something similar.

Children this age may also suffer from headaches and upset stomachs, and the symptoms may come on shortly before a visitation is due with the other parent. The child may not want to attend school, may have difficulties getting along with peers, and could begin to have problems academically. The child may try to look “cool” in front of his or her friends by acting as though the divorce has no effect at all. However, parents need to be aware that this behavior is only hiding the child’s pain and negative emotions.

Teenagers 13-18 Years Old

Teens may act as though they don’t need support from their parents during and after a divorce. These kids are trying to develop their own sense of self, which can become lost in matters of divorce. Teens may often take over responsibilities that were once handled by the now-absent parent. It is important that parents do not speak badly of the other parent, regardless of the age of the age.  Alienation can happen quickly.

Teens may also begin to doubt their own ability to have a successful relationship and may pull away from a boyfriend or girlfriend. Some teens may turn to drug and alcohol as a means of coping with the changes. They may suffer from depression and become withdrawn, and may refuse to ask for help. Parents need to be aware of certain changes in their teens’ behavior, especially behaviors that can be destructive. The most important thing to remember when dealing with your teenager is to keep the lines of communication open. He or she will not likely start the conversation, either, so take any opportunity you can to talk to your older teen.

Changing Times, Changing Behaviors

Divorce can be exceedingly difficult for children, no matter what age. Parents need to work together to help their children cope with issues that the divorce brings. While it can be difficult for parents to put aside their feelings, it is what will be needed to help children learn to accept the divorce and have a fulfilling, happy childhood.

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