What Behaviors Should Parents Look Out for in Children of Divorce?
Divorce is rarely easy. Even couples who are fortunate enough to end their marriage on amicable terms aren’t immune to the stressors of divorce, not to mention the financial and emotional hardships of the legal proceedings.
If you and your spouse have children, divorce can be all the more challenging. Divorce-related decisions like child custody and child support can enhance a parent’s stress levels and negatively impact their mental and emotional wellbeing.
It’s normal to feel concerned about helping your child transition during and after a divorce. As parents, we have an obligation to protect our little ones from harm—a burden that most parents carry willingly, even with the knowledge that they can’t shield their children from everything.
However, rest assured that there are ways for parents to prioritize their child’s safety and care for their physical, mental, and emotional needs after the family separates.
7 Red Flags to Watch Out for in Children of Divorce
Whether you’re a struggling parent in the thick of divorce proceedings or picking up the pieces after a recent divorce, the ability to recognize unhealthy behaviors in your child is paramount. There are some adolescent behaviors, even ones that initially seem unpleasant or alarming, that are perfectly normal in children of divorce.
For example, it can be healthy for children to experience and process certain emotions (such as grief, anger, or fear). However, certain “red flag” behaviors can indicate that your child needs additional help, whether that entails extra care from yourself, the other coparent, or a licensed professional.
Keep reading to learn 7 “red flag” behaviors to watch out for in children during or after a divorce.
1. Your child shows signs of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a psychological condition that entails extreme distress when the individual is separated from someone they’re close to, such as a parent or caregiver. While it’s natural for children to experience symptoms of separation anxiety on occasion, particularly at a young age, divorce can exacerbate your child’s symptoms to the point of mental and emotional harm.
Unlike adults, children’s brains are still developing. This means that a child often lacks the coping skills and self-awareness to identify and tolerate mental health conditions, such as depression or separation anxiety. If the divorce was particularly traumatic, it isn’t unheard of for children to develop certain learning disorders, such as ADHD or dyslexia.
If you notice your child displaying significant and persistent symptoms of separation anxiety, you may want to consider an assessment or evaluation from a child psychologist. While symptoms of separation anxiety don’t necessarily mean that your child suffers from separation anxiety disorder (SAD), a licensed professional can help your child develop healthy coping skills and work to improve their mental health.
Common symptoms of separation anxiety in children include:
- Recurring distress about being away from home or loved ones
- Excessive worry about losing a loved one to illness or disaster
- Constant anticipation that something bad is going to happen
- Refusing to stay away from home due to extreme fear of separation
- Recurring nightmares about being separated from home or loved ones
- Not wanting to be home alone without a loved one present
2. Your child exhibits noticeable changes in eating habits without medical cause.
Grief impacts each person differently. It isn’t uncommon for negative life events to affect a person’s appetite and eating habits, as experiencing a loss or other traumatic event can lead to persistent sadness, anxiety, or depression.
If these emotions become too chronic or severe for your child to manage, they can experience a reduction in appetite and an impaired ability to care for themselves in the same way they did before.
While adults are better equipped to recognize and acknowledge their need for help, children lack this ability, as their prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, planning, problem-solving, impulse control, and other crucial abilities—has yet to fully develop.
If your child is experiencing persistent changes in their appetite and eating habits, it may be time to seek care from a licensed mental health professional.
3. Your child’s symptoms are substantial enough to impair their daily activities and functioning.
Most (if not all) human beings experience an emotional breakdown from time to time. Considering that a child’s body and brain continue to develop well into young adulthood, it’s understandable that meltdowns and tantrums are especially prevalent in adolescents, as kids lack the cognitive ability to process their emotions in the same way as adults.
While it’s typically normal for kids to struggle with cognitive processes, especially emotional regulation and impulse control, excessive symptoms may indicate a more serious problem. If your child's symptoms are persistent enough to impair their day-to-day functioning, this may indicate that parental intervention is necessary.
Common examples of impaired functioning in children include:
- Loss of appetite
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in hygiene habits
- Inability to connect or get along with peers
- Missing school for recurrent reasons (such as physical ailments, behavioral issues, or academic hardships)
If your child is struggling enough to impair their daily functioning, it’s imperative for parents to intervene so the child can receive the help they need.
4. Your child demonstrates persistent signs of social withdrawal or avoidance.
Social withdrawal isn’t always a serious problem in children, especially for kids who are naturally introverted, shy, or adjusting to a new environment.
Like any other major life event, divorce can impact a child’s social tendencies, particularly the ability and desire to form healthy relationships with their peers. But when does social isolation or withdrawal become a more serious issue?
In some children, social withdrawal can be a sign of depression and may indicate a need for help, whether that entails professional counseling, medication, or a simple conversation with a caregiver to determine the cause of the behavior. Common symptoms include:
- Sudden shyness or anxiety in extroverted children
- Socially isolating themselves among peers
- A lack of interest in social activities
- Excessive fear or anxiety in social settings
- Inability to make or maintain eye contact
- Being excessively quiet in group settings
Social withdrawal symptoms in children may indicate an underlying health condition (such as autism, depression, or social anxiety disorder) or other issue, such as bullying or child abuse.
Whatever the reason, it’s best for parents to intervene when a child’s social withdrawal symptoms persist, as failing to address them can lead to worsening symptoms and complications as the child continues to age.
Moreover, studies show that children who exhibit symptoms of social withdrawal are more susceptible to parental influence than others, meaning that parents who are struggling to cope with the fallout of divorce can risk worsening or perpetuating their child’s condition, often without realizing it.
5. Your child frequently reports physical ailments without a known medical cause.
If your child frequently complains of an upset stomach, headache, or other physical condition with no medical explanation, this may be indicative of a mental health condition, such as anxiety.
In some cases, children can even develop post-traumatic stress after divorce. Studies show that 29% of adolescent boys and 39% of adolescent girls develop symptoms of PTSD after their parents' divorce.
While recurring physical ailments can indicate an underlying health condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome or allergy, children may also present symptoms as a result of severe anxiety or stress.
If your child is experiencing recurring aches or pains without no known medical cause, it may be worthwhile to seek a professional evaluation.
6. A trusted adult in your child’s life expresses concern for their wellbeing.
It’s often true that parents understand their children better than anyone. However, being a parent comes with certain limitations.
For example, while you may have an apt idea of what’s going on in your child’s home life, you may lack awareness of your child’s academic, social, or extracurricular circles.
If a trusted adult (such as a teacher, coach, or counselor) approaches you with concerns regarding your child’s behavior or wellbeing, their concerns are probably worth looking into.
7. You feel frustrated, confused, or upset by your child’s behavior most of the time.
If a child of divorce constantly acts out or exhibits problematic behavior, this can be a red flag that something is amiss—especially if the behavior is uncharacteristic of your child’s usual mood, emotions, and personality.
Emotional dysregulation can be detrimental to a child’s safety and wellbeing. It can also make it difficult for parents to care for children while working through their own hardships after a divorce. The ability to identify abnormal behaviors in your child can help determine if your child requires additional care.
More often than not, persistent bad behavior is indicative that there is something else going on, especially if the child recently underwent a major life change. It’s important for parents to remember that rebellious behaviors—such as acting out, defying authority, or throwing frequent tantrums—are often typical in adolescence.
Recurrent undesirable behaviors don’t necessarily mean that your child is disobedient, difficult, or disturbed; rather, they can signal that the child’s emotional needs aren’t being met. In this case, they may require additional care to help them process and cope with divorce.
Quick Tips for Parents Caring for Children After Divorce
It’s normal to feel concerned for your child after divorce, especially while struggling to cope with your own emotions and hardships. Consider these quick tips for parents wishing to ease their child’s transition after divorce:
- Consult with other adult figures in your child’s life when needed. This may include teachers, coaches, tutors, and other adults who have a quality relationship with the child. For example, if your child is displaying aggression or other concerning behavior at home, insight from a trusted adult in an alternate sphere (such as the child’s academic, social, or extracurricular circles) can be useful to determine your next steps.
- Keep a log of your child’s behavior. While this may not be necessary for every child, it can be beneficial for parents to keep an active log of the child’s activity and behaviors. For example, if your child is exhibiting violent outbursts or emotional meltdowns that are more frequent than usual, it may be worth documenting these occasions, as your notes can prove useful to a licensed professional if your child ends up needing additional care.
- Be aware of your own behaviors, especially around the child and the other parent. Parents experience their own whirlwind of emotion after a divorce. Caring for your own needs while prioritizing the needs of your child can be a challenging balancing act. Nonetheless, it’s important for parents to avoid modeling unhealthy behaviors, such as badmouthing the other parent behind their back, arguing or discussing serious topics within earshot of the child, or engaging in substance misuse and other inappropriate coping mechanisms.
Reliable Representation for California Families in Need
Our compassionate team at Creative Family Solutions, Cecil Cianci Law, PC is committed to helping California families resolve legal matters as swiftly and peacefully as possible. With over six decades of collective legal experience, our firm has a hard-earned reputation for providing personalized attention and customized legal solutions for each and every client.
Whether you’re filing for divorce, navigating adoption, or preparing for a child custody case, our experienced family lawyers are here to help make the legal proceedings as efficient and pain-free as possible. We have a proven track record of success advocating for families in Roseville, Sacramento, and beyond. Contact us today to learn how we can help strengthen your case and secure a favorable result in court.
If you're preparing for a divorce, child custody case, or other family matter in California, it's crucial to turn to a family law firm you can trust. Call Creative Family Solutions, Cecil Cianci Law, PC at (916) 675-3866 to request a consultation.