The Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale ranks divorce as the second most stressful life event a person can experience. Second only to the death of a spouse, divorce can be so traumatic that it can have lasting effects on children who witnessed their parents’ marriage dissolve.
The impact of divorce often varies with a child’s age. Younger children have spent a relatively short period of time in an intact family. They are usually able to adjust a bit more easily to the sudden disintegration of their family. But divorce is harder on pre-teens and adolescents who were accustomed to being part of a secure, intact family. The sudden loss of security that accompanies divorce can lead to changes in mood, attitude, and behavior. Below is a look at some of the specific effects divorce can have on older children.
Anger and Depression
Famous psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, referred to depression as “anger turned inward.” When a marriage ends in divorce, some older children may experience anger, depression, or a combination of both emotions. Angry children and teens may lash out at loved ones, have verbal outbursts, or even damage possessions or property. Depression is not as easy to spot, but common signs include the following:
- A lack of interest in favorite hobbies or activities
- Noticeable irritability or grumpiness
- Excessive sleeping
- Alcohol or drug abuse
If your child shows signs of depression or difficulty controlling their anger, it is best to seek the guidance of an experienced counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist right away. A skilled mental health professional can evaluate your child’s symptoms and map out a course of treatment to prevent major depressive disorder from developing.
While some older children may act out, others may behave in a completely opposite fashion. Because they feel responsible for their parents’ separation, their guilt may prompt them to try to behave perfectly. You may notice the following types of behaviors:
- Dramatically improved performance at school
- An increased fear of making mistakes
- A tendency to try to control every situation
- Procrastination due to anxiety about performing a task incorrectly
While improved school performance and attention to detail are good traits to have, it’s important to help your children live a happy life. Remind them that it’s okay to make an error, and they will not be abandoned if they make a mistake.
Taking One Parent’s Side Over the Other
“As if the conflict between you and your spouse wasn’t enough of a dagger in your side, many parents find themselves facing an allied front against their own children. In one study sample, it was reported that at the time of the breakup, around one-fifth of the children developed an alliance with one parent against the other.” – Global Children’s Fund
It is not uncommon for children to side with one parent over the other following a divorce. Teens, in particular, may align themselves with the parent they feel more attached to and refuse to visit the other parent. In many of these cases, they side with one parent because they feel abandoned by the noncustodial parent. In reality, they may miss the other parent and long to see them.
A Reluctance to Trust Other People
Older children who thought their parents had a strong relationship are often blindsided when news of a divorce surfaces. After the initial shock wears off, they may begin to question the longevity of their own relationships with friends and loved ones. You may notice the following:
- Ending existing relationships out of fear that they will ultimately fall apart
- Showing a lack of interest in building new relationships with others
- Exhibiting a pessimistic attitude about relationships in general
These tendencies are all examples of emotional barriers that older children may establish. In many cases, they are subconsciously safeguarding against the possibility of developing a relationship that may ultimately fail like their parents’ relationship did.
Acting as a Therapist
“During this difficult period, parents may be preoccupied with their own problems, but continue to be the most important people in their children’s lives…Some parents feel so hurt or overwhelmed by the divorce that they may turn to the child for comfort or direction. This can add to the pressure and stress a child is experiencing.” – American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Some older children are so mature that their parents may forget that they are not yet adults. This is especially easy to do during and after a divorce if one or both parents become overwhelmed by their own problems. They may lean on their older children for support or comfort. The children, in turn, become makeshift therapists who feel like it is their job to make their parents feel better. This can add to any pressure children are already feeling.
How can parents help minimize the stress on their children during a divorce?
Divorce can be just as traumatic for children as it is for their parents. While it may not be possible to fully prevent children from experiencing the negative effects outlined above, there are some steps you can take to help minimize stress for your children. Here are some tips to help you make the divorce process as smooth as possible for your children:
- Tell your children regularly that you love them no matter what happens in life
- Let your children know the divorce is not their fault
- Remind them that most healthy relationships stand the test of time and encourage them to build strong relationships with others
- Try to maintain as much consistency as possible in your children’s lives
- Do your best to maintain a positive outlook, as children often take cues from their parents
- Choose an experienced and compassionate divorce lawyer to handle your case
The Law Offices of Stephen M. Bishop are here to provide the skilled and compassionate legal representation you and your family deserve. For over 40 years, Stephen M. Bishop has helped make the path to divorce as smooth as possible for California families. As a certified specialist in Family Law, Mr. Bishop invites you to contact us today for a complimentary phone consultation. We welcome the opportunity to work with you and your family.