Knowing the different things that children are likely to be feeling will help you empathize and quell these negative emotions. Here are some common emotional responses to parental divorce that children will feel:
What children feel during divorce
- Children will often hold out hopes that their parents will reunite, or that maybe this is just some temporary scuffle that will blow over.
- Kids tend to feel rejected and/or betrayed by the absent parent. If one parent has moved out, they’ll tend to interpret this as abandonment, especially younger children. Other kids may view the divorce in general as a personal rejection and judgment against their family, even if the other parent doesn’t actually abandon them. They’ll also tend to interpret a parent’s pursuit of other interests as a rejection of them.
- Children tend to feel powerless and are often overcome with feelings of hopelessness. They’ll feel trapped in a world that is spiraling out of control, with problems that are too big to understand and for which they have no power over.
- Children will feel an acute sense of loss: for the family, for the missing parent, for their sense of stability and security in life. Much like the death of a loved one, divorce isn’t just about family disruption in the here and now; it’s about lost hopes and dreams for the future. The loss of family vacations, of growing up in a two-parent home, even hopes and plans for wedding days or graduations can be disrupted by divorce. Their life will be different in every way going forward. This provokes a profound sense of loss over the future they had been planning on.
- Children may feel isolated and lonely, especially if they are an only child. “Only children often have a much harder time and are more likely to feel lonely, isolated, and overwhelmed by their parents’ problems,” say Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 144). “Siblings after divorce often form small subcultures within the family, creating a united front vis-à-vis their parents and the adult world. They lie awake at night discussing their parents and trying to make sense of what they observe.”
- Almost all children will feel responsible to a certain degree. Even if they accept intellectually or consciously that it’s not their fault, there always tends to be that lingering doubt, that thought in the back of their mind that, “If only I had just done this or that, things might have turned out differently.” They may assume that they didn’t love Dad enough, or that maybe if Mom wasn’t so busy raising her, their parents might still be together.
- Children of all ages will fear abandonment or neglect to one degree or another, either by one parent or both. This fear of abandonment needn’t be absolute; they can feel such feelings merely as a result of diminished contact and/or availability from one or both of their parents. They’ll feel neglected as their parent struggles to establish a new life on their own, with all the tasks that come with it.
- Children of divorce usually feel as though they have less rights and less control over their lives than peers from intact homes. They often refer to themselves as “second class citizens.”