Effect of Divorce on Children

Children's Behavior in the Classroom During & After a Divorce


California child therapist Lori Rappaport, writing at Growingupgreat.com, explains that depression is common among children whose parents are divorcing or who have recently divorced. Your child’s depression might present in the classroom through tearfulness and being sad and withdrawn. Likewise, a child who was once talkative in class might become withdrawn and quiet and have difficulty coping with any academic pressures or challenges. These depressive symptoms might make it difficult for your child to perform to his full potential.

Aggression and Anger

Aggression and anger are also typical responses to divorce in children. In the classroom, your child might refuse to comply with his teacher’s requests, do his homework or cooperate with classmates. Both during and after a divorce, your child might become aggressive toward other child, engage in bullying behaviors or lash out physically when frustrated. Your child might blame her behavioral problems on others and refuse to take responsibility for her inappropriate behaviors.

Effects of Stress

According to the website for the Plainview-Old Congress of Teachers, children of divorce might become distant and anxious in the classroom. They might forget their homework, get caught up in day dreams and report physical complaints such as a stomachache or headache. In most cases, these effects, which can affect your child’s grades and behavioral reports, are often a response to stress and instability at home. For example, adjusting to visitation schedules, moving out of the family home or adapting to new child care arrangements can make a child feel stressed, insecure and anxious.

Lack of Noticeable Changes

While many children show distinct behavioral changes in response to a divorce, other children might not display outward signs of distress. Your child might continue to behave appropriately and meet academic milestones. This does not mean that your child is not affected by the divorce, however. Even if your child is not displaying behavioral changes in school, she might still be feeling strong emotions but keeping them hidden so she doesn't hurt you or her other parent.

How Does a Divorce Affect a Teenager's Ability to Trust?

Personal Relationships

Marcia Lipman Lebowitz, who has a master’s degree in social work, explained that after a divorce, a teenager might question his own ability to have “meaningful relationships.” Further, in the teenager’s personal relationships, she might be guarded, reluctant to make commitments or she might behave in manipulative ways to keep her partner from leaving her. Likewise, some teenagers whose parents have divorced may choose to engage in romantic partnerships with the idea that they can end the bonds if the relationship does not meet their expectations. In short, divorce can affect a teenager’s ability to trust both herself and her prospective partners.

Parental Relationships

Divorce can also affect the parent-child relationship. Psychologist Carl Pickhardt explains that teenagers may lose trust in their parents during the divorce process. Teens may direct this mistrust toward the parent who moves out of the family home, because this parent may become less available, which could anger the teen. Further, adolescents may feel pressured to side with one parent or another. This dynamic may be more pronounced if the divorce is adversarial and if parents display mistrust toward one another.

Lifestyle Instability

Because divorce generally brings major changes to the family lifestyle, a teenager might not trust that her parents can meet her basic needs -- in particular, the teen’s emotional needs. This can be particularly painful for a child of the same sex as the parent who has moved out of the family residence. In addition to emotional instability, if the family’s financial situation changes drastically because of the divorce, the teen might not trust her parents’ ability to provide a secure, basic living environment.

Control Issues

Teenagers with younger siblings may try to assume parent-like roles during their parents’ divorce. Teens might also feel uncertain and that they do not trust in their parents’ ability to fulfill their former roles is caretakers. This dynamic may be more pronounced if one or both parents is experiencing depression, anxiety or other significant distress over the divorce. Additionally, teenagers may feel mistrustful of their parents because they perceive their parents putting their own needs above the needs of the family.

Psychological Effects of Parental Bad-Mouthing in a Divorce

Bad-Mouthing and Long-Range Adjustment

Resisting the temptation to say unkind things about your ex in the presence of your children is not easy, but it is necessary. Researchers at the Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics report that excessive levels of parental conflict negatively influence a child’s long-range emotional adjustment to divorce. Kids Health reports that banning name-calling and angry tirades is a loving strategy that parents adopt to assist their children in weathering the unsettling transitions that accompany divorce.

Bad-Mouthing and Choosing Sides

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that parents who demonstrate amicable cooperation help their child cope with the divorce experience. Your polite interaction with your ex provides a positive model for your children, who continue to look to you for social cues in troubled waters. Conversely, exposure to parental conflict causes feelings of guilt and self-blame for the divorce, or even an unwelcome obligation to choose sides in the controversy when children find themselves in the middle of a war zone.

When to Seek Help

Even if you and your ex have taken care to demonstrate an amicable pattern of communication, your child may need additional sources of support to transition through the divorce process. HelpGuide.org reminds parents that although each child requires varying periods of time to adjust, most children eventually exhibit progress. Warning signs that your child needs help to deal with anger, depression or anxiety include self-injury, uncontrolled tantrums, social withdrawal, academic failure and disrupted sleep. Your child’s doctor may provide a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in children’s adjustment challenges.

Alternatives to Bad-Mouthing

The stress and psychological trauma associated with divorce are less detrimental for children when parents deliberately plan to make their child’s emotional health a priority, and practice the plan consistently. Granted -- this goal is not simplistic in theory or practice. Still, aim to take a proactive stance when engaged in a face-to-face or telephone interaction with your ex. Discontinue conversations that become heated, or take them elsewhere. In addition to monitoring verbal interactions, ensure that your children do not have access to written or electronic communications that detail conflict between you and your ex.

Can Divorce Cause Behavior Problems in a Toddler?

Arguing and Negativity

Toddlers can become argumentative in response to a divorce, says state extension specialist Kim Leon, with the University of Missouri Extension. With expanding language skills, you may hear “no” more from your toddler as she bristles and fights you throughout the day. Toddlers might begin pushing limits and vying for increased independence during a divorce.

Temper Tantrums

When your toddler’s secure and predictable world changes with a divorce, fear and anxiety often result. A youngster may react to this stress with increased temper tantrums, according to psychologist Daniel Pickar with the Sonoma County Medical Association. Excessive crying may also occur as your little one deals with the upheaval the divorce may be causing in his life.

Separation Anxiety

When one parent suddenly leaves the house, a toddler has enough awareness to notice the absence and miss the parent, even though she doesn’t understand why the parent left. Separation anxiety may manifest as increased clinginess and a resistance to separating from one or both parents, according to family life extension specialist Lesia Oesterreich of Iowa State University. Your toddler may show fear about separating, even if the parent simply walks out of the room momentarily. If overnight visitations are a part of the divorce agreement, your toddler might struggle with separation from the primary parent, cautions psychologist Peter Ernest Haiman on his website.

Sleep Issues

Sleep difficulties often accompany anxieties common for toddlers during a divorce, according to developmental psychologist Jean Mercer, writing for "Psychology Today." Sleep disturbances are likely, including difficulty going to sleep and staying asleep. Fatigue generally accompanies sleep disturbances, which sets the stage for additional behavioral problems, such as temper tantrums.


Regression is another common divorce reaction for young children, according to Haiman. Toilet training may backslide, and a toddler who had begun speaking may stop. Your toddler might suddenly become clumsy. An outgoing, active child could become quiet, and a spunky, free-spirited child might transform into an obedient youngster.

Adolescent Development & Divorce

Young Children

In a 2011 article for “Psychology Today,” psychologist Carl E. Pickhardt writes that divorce often causes pre-adolescent children to develop a greater sense of dependence toward one or both parents. Young children may also develop dependence on wishful thinking, hoping for the day when mom and dad reunite. This may lead to a lack of trust or a sense of instability or anxiousness, the latter of which may be heightened by separation anxiety.

Early Adolescence

Upon entering adolescence, children typically rely less on their parents as they devote more time to friends and nonfamily social circles. In contrast to the effects of divorce on pre-adolescent development, Pickhardt claims that adolescents tend to develop a greater sense of independence and self-sufficiency when their parents divorce. Essentially, divorce nudges many adolescents closer to adulthood, as they feel they must take care of themselves.

Teen Years

The grief that young children often feel over their parents' divorce may manifest as anger or aggression during adolescence. Mary W. Temke, a human development specialist from the University of New Hampshire, notes that teens understand the reasons for their parents' divorce more clearly than young children, and although this understanding makes it easier for parents to explain or justify the separation, this awareness may also lead to feelings of conflict, when teens feel the need to “choose a side.” Temke reasons that some people who experience parental divorce during their adolescence grow up to doubt their own ability to stay married.


While a 1992 study published in the “Journal of Family Psychology” -- later revisited in 2001 -- found that adults whose parents divorced typically fare worse than adults with non-divorced parents in categories such as school performance, behavioral problems, parental relationships and self-image. A huge rift between the two groups doesn't exist in these and other categories. In a 2009 article for Parenting 24-7, Robert Hughes of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign states that the groups are “more alike than different.” Hughes goes on to say that although children from divorced families are more likely to need professional help for their problems than children from intact families, the majority of children from divorced families do not need professional help.

Emotional Effects of Parenting Agreements

Effects of Divorce

In an adversarial divorce, custody arrangements must be mediated by the courts and the divorced partners remain hostile to each other and are frequently in conflict. This type of divorce can be highly emotionally damaging, especially to young children. According to an article in Psychology Today, children below the age of 2 typically experience depression and anxiety after a divorce. Children above the age of 2 tend to regress in their emotional and mental development and become obsessed with fears of abandonment. They often blame themselves for the divorce. If they aren't in regular contact with one of the parents, they suffer ongoing emotional distress over it. These problems can be greatly reduced by a thoughtful co-parenting agreement.

Parenting Agreements

A successful parenting agreement must create a shared approach to parenting while also resolving practical matters such as custody arrangements. It can be a good idea to begin the agreement with a statement that both parents are committed to working together to create a loving and stable parenting arrangement for their children and to help their children remain emotionally close to both parents. The agreement covers custody arrangements including overnights with both parents, specifies which parent has primary decision-making power in which areas of life and how to resolve any conflicts that arise. It addresses what to do if either parent moves, who is financially responsible for various expenses and what should be done if either parent passes away. Although a number of different co-parenting templates are available online, you should check with an attorney to find out how to draft a legally binding agreement in the area where you live.

Conflict Reduction

Parenting agreements can help protect children from the destructive emotional consequences of divorce. The written agreement between both parents to raise their children as a mutually supportive team can help to preserve a stable and relatively harmonious relationship and reduce the amount of conflict to which the child is exposed. According to an article by psychology professor Dr. Linda Nielsen, children whose parents have a shared custody agreement have less conflict than those who don't.

Emotional Bonds

Parenting agreements typically provide for both parents to share residential custody rather than restricting one parent to visitations. According to social work professor Edward Kruk in Psychology Today, this is the most crucial aspect of successful co-parenting for the well-being of the child. According to the article by Dr. Nielsen, children who spend overnights with both parents after a divorce do better on every measurement of emotional and mental well-being, except in cases where one parent is abusive. Even the negative emotional effects of observing frequent conflict between parents is not as severe as that of not being able to spend enough time with both of them.