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Children may experience mood changes following a divorce. Some children may experience symptoms of depression, in which they feel sad, have little motivation to engage in tasks they used to engage in, and may be more withdrawn than usual. Other children may demonstrate symptoms of anxiety, in which they worry about things that are out of their control, and may have difficulty coping with stressful situations. Other children may display symptoms of anger, which can take the form of irritability or aggression. These children may become verbally or physically aggressive with others as a response to the divorce. No one child has the same response to a divorce as any other child, and children may go through many different mood changes as they adjust and process to the new situation.
Mood changes can be difficult because parents want to try and fix the problem and make their children feel better. However, it is important for parents to realize that in order for children to adjust to the divorce and new arrangements in the long-term, the short term effects need to be handled properly. Overindulging a child or giving into guilty feelings will never do a child any good. Parents should be sure to give their children as much time and compassion as possible. Children often experience a decrease in love and affection following divorce, simply because they are only with one parent at a time. Sometimes, this decrease can be exacerbated when parents are dealing with their own personal stressors. However, providing children with love and affection following divorce is one of the most important things that a parent can do for their child. Parents should also make an effort to process their own feelings and not allow their own feelings to affect the children.
Emotional responses following divorce can lead to behavior problems in school. Children may begin to experience a decrease in their grades. They may have less interest in school subjects or extracurricular activities due to the new stressors in their lives. Children may also act out in the school environment. They may “smart-mouth” a teacher, get into an argument with a peer, or have a physical altercation with another student. While these behaviors may be a response to the divorce, they are not acceptable and need to be managed appropriately. Children do not act these ways because they want to be bad. The behavior always has some meaning, and it is important to get to the root of the problem in order to resolve the negative behaviors. Parents can help their children by talking with them about their feelings, and allowing them to express their feelings and thoughts without criticism. Children may have some angry words for parents, and these too need to be expressed. Ideally, parents can process feelings with their children in order to help everyone adjust. Each parent must provide children the time and opportunity to express feelings and to talk about the situation.
Sometimes professional help is necessary to help children and families adjust to divorce. Children who are putting themselves or others in danger should see a professional right away. However, there does not need to be anything majorly wrong to see a therapist. It is strongly encouraged for most children and families going through divorce, and allows for healthier transitions. A therapist will be able to help family members communicate with one another assertively and directly, in order to share feelings that otherwise were not able to be discussed at home, and to help resolve conflicts within the family. Therapists can meet with a child individually or with a parent. Sometimes, children prefer to have the parent out of the room when talking with a therapist, as they fear that they may be punished for angry feelings. While this is unlikely true, therapists should tell parents and children what will remain confidential in individual sessions, and what will be shared with the parents.
Behavior problems and mood changes following divorce are not permanent if handled appropriately. While the process of adjusting to a new living situation can take a long time, sometime several years, children are resilient and tend to bounce back to their old selves soon enough. Parents should remember to be patient with their children during this difficult time, and know that each child will bounce back when the time is right for her/him.