Among all the different types of maltreatment or aversive environments, divorce is typically one of the leading causes of behavioral problems in children, right alongside things like poor parenting or dysfunctional family settings. Parents often report their children become defiant and harder to handle following a divorce, and teachers report that children often become disruptive in class or have behavioral problems in school. (GCF, 2013; Waleerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000) Kids who were “good” before the divorce may suddenly become “problem children.” These behavioral issues may be short-lived, but they can also persist for quite some time or develop into a “new normal” for children after divorce.

This can include everyday acting out, or it can involve more serious delinquency. Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., states that “it’s not too unusual when counseling a preadolescence who has done something dramatic and new, such as stealing and crashing the family car or who has been arrested for burglary, to discover that his parents were contemplating a divorce. Creating this crisis was the only way the child could think of to requite his parents, if only for the moment. While his motivations were unconscious, his actions addressed his strong need.” (Kutner, 1996, p. 131) Stealing and other types of delinquency may be a child’s way of crying out for help in response to death or divorce without having to ask for help directly and risk appearing weak.

There are several reasons behavioral problems arise in children following a divorce. For one, divorce can make it more difficult for parents to monitor and supervise their children effectively. (Buchanan, Maccoby & Dornbusch, 1996; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994) Following a divorce, most parents find it becomes more difficult to discipline consistently. (Hetherington, Cox & Cox, 1979) Children often endure a drop in the amount of warmth and affection they receive from their caretakers, if for no other reason than that they see each parent less. Children who feel less warmth and affection act out more. (Forehand, Thomas, Wierson & Brody, 1990; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999) After divorce, parent-child conflict often increases, and family cohesion decreases, both of which feed into behavioral problems. (Short, 2002) There are also a number of environmental changes which create stress for the child, and children experiencing stress and negative feelings show behavior similar to a cranky child who missed her all-important midday nap. Discipline problems can also be created because of issues with step-family dynamics, but that’s an entirely different monster altogether. And since children tend to experience many of these issues at once, divorce can be like a perfect storm for spawning behavioral problems among kids.

The primary causes of child behavioral problems after divorce

Though a child’s behavior is driven by a multitude of factors, there are 7 primary causes of post-divorce behavioral problems that we’ll discuss in this chapter:

  • Emotional distress
  • Inconsistency in parenting
  • Damaged parental authority
  • Parental insecurity
  • Parental conflict
  • Stress caused by environmental changes/transitions
  • Children deliberately attempting to punish their parents.

The following pages will discuss each of these issues in detail and help you determine which factors might be playing a role in your child’s problem behavior, and then offer tips for how you can resolve the situation.

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