Children & Divorce: 5 Signs Kids Are Having Trouble Coping

By Lene Larsen

Divorce With Children Involved

It's no surprise that parental separation and divorce are difficult and stressful events for children. The emotional effects on children of divorce are many. They often misinterpret what is going on and blame themselves for their parents’ conflicts. Their sense of security and safety is threatened. They feel confused, angry, sad and lonely, as they try to come to terms with the break-up of their family.

Fortunately, when it comes to children and divorce, they tend to be resilient, and with a thoughtful approach by both parents, steps can be taken to minimize the negative impact of divorce. Those include both parents sitting down and talking to the child about the divorce, listening to the child’s concerns, thoughts, and feelings, helping the child maintain positive relationships with both parents, keeping conflicts and arguments away from the child, and avoiding “putting the child in the middle”. Time, love and reassurance will go a long way in helping children cope.

Sometimes, however, despite parents’ best efforts to make the divorce process as smooth and painless as possible, children struggle to cope with divorce. It is normal for children to respond to a difficult situation with emotional and behavior problems, but when these problems become intense and persistent, and when they begin to interfere significantly with the child’s functioning, parents should consider consulting a counselor or therapist.

children and divorce

Divorce Advice with Children

5 signs that children may be having trouble coping include:

1)  Feeling sad and crying more than usual

Your child may be sad and cry more, and it may be more difficult than usual to comfort him. He may cry for no apparent reason or in response to what looks to be a minor issue. What makes him cry may not have anything to do with the divorce, but because he is having trouble coping with the divorce, his resources to deal with other smaller problems are diminished.

2) Worrying and feeling scared

Your child may start to worry more. She may be fearful in situations that did not used to cause a problem. For example, she may feel scared to go to bed at night, be more clingy when separating from you, and worry about bad things happening to you. She may appear more insecure and need more reassurance from you than normal. The worries may or may not be related to the divorce, but, in general, her day-to-day functioning seems to be influenced by worry or anxiety more than usual.

3) Withdrawing and losing interest in activities

Some children withdraw and keep more to themselves when they feel stressed. They may stop enjoying spending time with friends and doing activities they used to enjoy.  They may become more distant from their family, spend more time in their room, or otherwise do things by themselves. In a sense, your child may try to avoid the whole “divorce situation,” and you may start to worry about what is going on, because your child is not talking to you.

4) Arguing and acting up

Another response to stress can be to act up, argue and become oppositional. Your child may feel angry or out-of-control, and it may show up in how she interacts with you and others. If you find it difficult to manage her behavior at home, and if you start getting calls from school that she is getting in trouble, her behavior may actually reflect difficulty dealing with the divorce. Seeking outside support may help your child learn to talk about her difficulty rather than acting up.

5) Declining school performance

When children struggle with a stressful situation, a decline in school performance sometimes follows. They just have too much on their mind. They have trouble paying attention in class, because they are distracted by what is going on at home. At home, they can’t concentrate on homework, so they fall behind academically. In some cases, they may pretend not to care. In other cases, children feel bad about falling behind, and this now becomes another stressor to deal with. In these situations, it is important to work with the school to make sure staff understand what is going on with your child.

Even though it may be difficult with everything that is involved in a divorce with children involved, it is very important that you remember to keep close tabs on how your children are coping. If you notice a big change in how they are doing emotionally and behaviorally, if what you try to do to support them does not seem to help, and if they  are getting worse rather than better, it is good idea to seek help. Contacting your child’s pediatrician or seeking out a local therapist who specializes in working with children is a good place to start.

About the Author

Lene Larsen

Dr Larsen is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with children, teens, and their parents. She specializes in treating emotional, behavioral, and adjustment problems. She provides individual and family therapy in a supportive manner, using evidence-based practices. Dr. Larsen is a member of the Main Line Family Law Center's Divorce Support Network. Call (484)380-2645 or visit for a complimentary 15-minute consultation. Offices in Haverford, PA and Devon, PA.

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Topics: Mindful Divorcing Parent