I attended a great panel talk the other week on parenting through divorce. The talk was organized by Elise Pettus, founder of UNtied, and given by three experienced therapists – Steve Demby, Barbara Rothberg, and Alice Kaltman. Together, the presenters shared a wealth of helpful information about parenting, and I wanted to share some of the highlights. The previous post focused on the effects that divorce may have on parents and children, this post will highlight behaviors that children may exhibit during divorce, and the final post in the series will offer tips for co-parenting.
Typical Child Behavior(s) in Divorce
There are a number of common behaviors that children across age groups exhibit in response to divorce, as well as age-specific behaviors that parents would be well served to be aware of.
One pattern to expect in all kids coping with divorce is regression to younger behaviors. Because divorce is a stressor on parents and children, your kids will likely exhibit behaviors temporarily that had previously moved beyond (e.g., thumb-sucking), and they may temporarily lose skills they had previously mastered (e.g., potty-training). As children become more comfortable with the transition from a one- to a two-household family, these behaviors should go away (and skills return).
For toddlers and young children (up to age 5ish) a focus on the present and on the concrete things in front of them is typical. It helps to give these kids very concrete details about what their life will look like post-separation, including a lot of reassurance that they are safe and loved by both parents. Children of this age will often say what’s on their mind, which helps you as a parent. Try to set aside some free, open time to spend with your child so that your child’s thoughts, questions and fears can come up organically.
For the elementary and middle schoolers (ages 6-11), a focus on peers and school – on life outside the home – is normal, but psychic ties to the home are still very strong. To a surprising degree, these children may long for their parents to get back together, and can also harbor feelings of guilt and responsibility for the parents’ breakup. Offering reassurance in response to those fears, when expressed, can be helpful for this age group.
Adolescents are challenging whether you’re married or divorced. The struggles you’re having with your 12 year-old son may be the same struggles you’d have if you were still with your ex. Nonetheless, divorce can intensify behaviors, at least for a period of time.
Part of the project of adolescence is psychic separation from the parents, some of which entails angry and critical feelings toward the parents. So, your teenagers are likely to be angry with and critical of you. While you want to acknowledge their feelings, it is equally important to set clear, firm boundaries around the appropriate ways to express feelings in your household. Ideally, your ex shares your take on what’s ok and reinforces the same limits in his or her household. If not, you can still be clear about boundaries and limits when your children are in your household.
A potentially misleading behavior to be aware of in any age group is the absence of any outward signs of distress. Children undergoing a stressful transition like divorce, who show no outward signs of distress, may be attempting to take care of the parents by “acting perfect.” This behavior often arises when the child feels protective of the parent(s) and/or responsible for their separation. If you notice this behavior in your child, making an effort to elicit and normalize their experience can be helpful. Alternatively, connecting your child with a helpful counselor or therapist can give them a safe space in which to explore their authentic feelings around the divorce and their new home environment(s).
As I mentioned above, children are resilient, and the behaviors I’ve just described will generally resolve themselves within a period of time. For any behavior that feels particularly severe or unchanging in your child, reach out to a professional for help sooner rather than later. It can be in a time-limited capacity, and focused on very specific issues. Often, the earlier you intervene, the easier it is to address the behavior and its underlying causes.