Divorce and Children: 4 Ways they might React and How to Handle It

By Jackie Pilossoph, Editor-in-chief, Divorced Girl Smiling, Love Essentially columnist and author

This blog post on divorce and children by Rebecca Kieffer, Child Therapist for North Shore Pediatric Therapy doesn’t need much of an introduction, except to say that I really wish I’d have had information like this when I was first separated. I think that no child goes unaffected by divorce, but each one deals with the divorce in their own unique way. As sad as we are for ourselves when we are first separated, there are three very important things, in my opinion that you need to do when it comes to your kids:

1. Watch your children’s behavior very closely. You don’t want to miss any signs.

2. Make sure you communicate with them extensively. Initiate conversations a lot. Remember, kids don’t like to talk. Ask them how they are feeling and keep telling them you are here to listen if they want to talk.

3. Love love love them! Shower them with extra hugs and kisses because right now they are feeling insecure. Constantly reassure them of your love and that you will always be there for them.

Divorce and Children: 4 Ways Children May React by Rebecca Kieffer

 For children, divorce can be a time of sadness, frustration and confusion. Children can experience divorce in very different ways depending on their age and the availability of their parents during this time. Often times, divorce can be considered a loss for children and their parents. They may go through various stages of grief as they try to understand and adjust to all the changes that they are going through.

Due to the nature of how children deal with loss, children affected by divorce may exhibit sudden changes in their behavior. They may start acting out to gain attention from their parents, they may withdraw from friends and family or they may experience a sudden drop in their grades. Sometimes if may be difficult for a parent to recognize these changes in behavior due to being under a lot of stress.  It can be common for a parent to become aware of these concerns for the first time through another family member, a teacher or someone else that is close to the child.

Here are four of the most common ways children can react to divorce.

  • Anger. They may express anger, resentment and frustration towards their parents and the changes that are happening. They may express these feelings through withdrawal, aggression or temper tantrums.
  • Anxiety. Depending on the age of the child, they may express their anxiety through clinging onto their parent, refusing to separate from them, avoiding discussing their feelings and exhibiting somatic symptoms (i.e. they may complain of headaches or stomachaches).
  • Depression. Children may become withdrawn, change their eating habits, have difficulty sleeping or sleep too much. They may express feelings of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Fears of abandonment.   Children may begin to feel insecure and may start to worry about who will take care of them. They may question whether or not the other parent will leave them and they may also feel rejected by one or both of their parents.

These reactions can be normal for children who are affected by divorce. However, if a child’s behaviors are not improving or are worsening over the course of a few months, it may be a sign that they are having a very difficult time adjusting to the divorce and they may need professional help. Make sure to discuss these concerns with the child’s pediatrician or consult a child and family therapist to identify if he/she needs additional support.

Here are some things that parents can do to help their child to adjust to the divorce and to continue to facilitate a positive relationship with them:

  • Listen to your child.  Acknowledge their feelings and encourage them to share how they are feeling.  Let them know that it is okay to feel sad, mad, happy, excited, confused and frustrated.
  • Communicate with your child.  It is important to be honest, share logistical information, help them to understand what to expect and explain things in an age appropriate manner. Let them know that both parents will always love and support them.
  • Stay involved in your child’s life.  Arrange regular and predictable visitations. Maintain regular communication with important people in your child’s life. Attend plays, recitals, and sporting events.
  • Avoid blaming, fighting and arguing. Often times children will blame themselves for their parents getting a divorce. Think ahead about what to say and how to say it. Remind your child that the divorce is not their fault.

Thanks, Rebecca for the wonderful post! One more thing. When you talk negatively about your child’s mother (or father) you are seriously hurting them so much, you have no idea. I know it’s difficult but please try to minimize that.

Rebecca Kieffer is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at North Shore Pediatric Therapy in Highland Park, IL. Rebecca has more than 15 years of experience working with children, adolescents and their families and specializes in treating children and adolescents who have faced trauma, abuse, loss and multiple transitions. Rebecca believes in utilizing a collaborative approach with parents, caregivers, medical providers, and extended support systems to help children to heal and to cope more effectively with the challenges that they are confronting.





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Editor-in-chief: Jackie Pilossoph

Divorce is a journey. Live it with grace, courage and gratitude. Peace and joy are on the way! Jackie Pilossoph is the creator and Editor-In-Chief of Divorced Girl Smiling. The author of the novels, Divorced Girl Smiling and Free Gift With Purchase, Pilossoph also writes the weekly dating and relationships advice column, “Love Essentially”, published in the Chicago Tribune Pioneer Press and the Chicago Tribune online. Additionally, she is a Huffington Post contributor. Pilossoph holds a Masters degree in journalism from Boston University.

3 Responses to “Divorce and Children: 4 Ways they might React and How to Handle It”

  1. Dorthy

    Hello Rebecca, thanks a lot for sharing such a valuable issue. I recently has taken the most hard step and can able to teach lessons to my husband. We have taken divorce for our own sake. Over the past few days I am noticing that my child (4 year old boy) is not behaving well. He is not eating well, neither playing nor studying properly. I was not getting the cause. But you have rescued in time. Thank a lot.

  2. Merrill

    Rebecca, you have very delicately written about such a complex situation. Hats off to you for that. Usually kids are the last ones to know about their parents divorce, mainly because the parents will have no idea on hoe to break the news to their kids. And no one will be able to predict what their reaction is going to be like. Nowadays the lawyers at the child support law firm also gives advices on how to tell your kids about your divorce. Once again thank you for this wonderful blog.


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