When a child experiences the divorce of their parents, they have to acknowledge and accept the loss of that relationship. They may even feel as if they are loosing one of their parents. Sadness, anger and anxiety are normal responses to loss.
Providing your children with love, reassurance and support will help them heal, but sometimes factors beyond your control can overwhelm children and create long term problems.
Why is my child having such a hard time moving forward?
Many children go through their parents’ divorce with relatively few problems, and others have a very difficult time. Significant changes in a child’s life can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response – anger or fear – and if a child cannot adequately express or mentally process those emotions, the child may feel extremely powerless and “freeze.” This reaction is the basis of traumatic stress.
Your kids may express their anger, rage, and resentment with you and your spouse for destroying their sense of normalcy. Angry outbursts that continue or become violent may be signs that they need help coping with their feelings.
It is natural for children to feel anxious when faced with big changes in their lives. If they seem to be worrying endlessly about minor and major situations, or if their anxiety is causing eating and sleeping problems, they may need more support.
Sadness about the family’s new situation is normal. But sadness coupled with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness is likely to become depression. When children feel depressed they may withdraw from their parents or loved ones, neglect their homework, dissociate from friends and discontinue pleasurable activities. Their eating habits may change or they may engage in some form of self-destructive behavior or act out.
Traumatic stress or shock
Trauma is determined by the child’s experience of the event, not simply the event itself. Different children in the same family may have dramatically different reactions to divorce. Trauma may cause depression and anxiety at the time of the separation or years later. It may also reoccur during weekends, holidays or times when the child misses the complete family unit.
Warning signs of more serious problems
If a child gets stuck in certain emotions, they may have a hard time getting ‘unstuck.’ Fear and uncertainty affect kids in a variety of ways. Your availability, willingness to listen and reassurance should help them, but sometimes outside help is necessary as well.
Recognize that it will take some time for your kids to work through their issues about the separation or divorce, but you should see gradual improvement over time. If things get worse rather than better after several months, that may be a sign that your child is stuck in depression, anxiety or anger and could use some additional support. Professional intervention may be necessary.
Warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety
- Sleep problems
- Poor concentration, chronic forgetfulness, declining grades
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Sexual promiscuity
- Self-injury, cutting
Written by Heather Resneder, MA, MFT-A
KidWorks is a free support group program for children ages five to eighteen that are experiencing the divorce of their parents. At KidWorks we believe that children need special help to overcome the losses and changes in their life due to a divorce and that honoring that healing process is a necessary component to maintaining healthy relationships in the future.