Divorce brings change, with many children adapting and welcoming new people into their lives. Divorce can also bring chaos, with parents in the survival mode and having less energy for their kids and constantly changing child custody. Physical and behavioral symptoms in children can be a cry for help and attention during this chaotic period.
1. Children may exhibit stomach and headaches. As a part-time school nurse, I see students who routinely have stomach aches and say they feel ill. The antacids given seem to be more of a placebo, since their real need is to talk or regroup in a quiet place away from peers. Some express what is not working out with visitation or other divorce concerns. When kids are stressed – little things can tip them over the edge – a test, a blow up with a buddy, etc. – and they come in with headaches. After a short break and voicing frustrations, these kids are ready to go back to class.
2. Some kids develop behavioral or neurological issues. One young lad was caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between his divorced parents and started having tics. His stress was compounded by a task oriented teacher who was not nurturing. His doctor appropriately ran neurological tests, but it seemed to me to be the result of an emotional issue. Delving into this matter brought to light that the boy was unable to handle 50/50 shared care. His parents and a third party worked together and decided to have the mother’s house as his primary residence allowing liberal contact with his father. The tics became a thing of the past with this amended custody arrangement. A second grader started pulling out his eyelashes due to stress. He saw a child psychologist for short-term therapy which ended this abnormal behavior and gave him strategies to deal with his volatile world.
3. Some children revert back to more infantile behavior after their parents’ divorce. They may regress to bedwetting or having accidents during the day. A few may want their bottle again or speak in baby talk. Yet others become clingier or cry more often. If a child was sleeping through the night, she may wake up and want to come into a parent’s room. Some kids experience nightmares. One four year old started having frightening dreams of giants chasing her after her parent’s divorce. It does not take a therapist to analyse that the giants represented her parents and the girl’s lack of control in her situation.
4. A little acting out in the aftermath of divorce is normal, being belligerent teetering on the brink of violence, is not. If kids are not following rules and are trying to dodge consequences, then help may be required. If feasible, check with the co-parent on the kid’s behavior with them, and devise a consistent code of conduct and repercussions for infractions. Family counselling can be helpful for airing concerns and getting all back on track.
5. Mood swings may become dramatic post-divorce. The teens may answer in one word syllables or demand more time alone. They cry more easily or become restless. One young student became jittery after his parent’s divorce and requires a release of this pent-up energy. Sometimes he and I do a few laps around the track and then he can be more still in the classroom.
6. Children may become quiet and more withdrawn. Needing extra down time is fine, but retreating into a fantasy world is not. One high school boy became immersed in a fictional place of wizards and other creatures as a place of safety after his parent’s acrimonious divorce. He had short-term therapy which propelled him back to reality. Forgetting about one’s woes during a movie, TV show, or book is healthy, but dwelling there is not.
7. If a child shuns friends and activities, discuss this with them. Get feedback from teachers, coaches and other adults in the child’s life and let them know about the divorce. Get an evaluation if the child is continuing to be withdrawn, since this may be a red flag for an underlying condition. The child may be clinically depressed and need intervention. Several students developed eating disorders after their parents’ divorces and one ended up in a hospital for several months.
8. Check for signs of impairment from drugs or alcohol usage. Are they secretive or is money missing from around the house? They may be experimenting with drugs. Discuss these concerns with your child’s doctor. It is better to nip these destructive tendencies in the bud, rather than do a series of stints in rehab, like some celebrities. If new friends are a bad influence, see what can be changed, such as enrolling in a different school, or a summer away from home at the grandparents’ summer cottage.
Expect temporary upsets with children’s behavior post-divorce and grant them some leeway. If problems escalate, then seek guidance. Denial does not make issues go away.
How can you make the divorce process easier on children?
- Handle Your Divorce With Care. Your Children Are Watching You!
- Childcare: Are You Giving Your Children What They Need?
- For The Dads: 10 Ways To Enjoy Quality Time With The Kids
- Protecting Your Child’s Self Esteem And Identity During Divorce