Though each child is unique and will react to news of the divorce in their own special way, here are some of the various reactions that will give you some idea about what to expect:
A Child’s initial reaction to divorce
Upon hearing the news, usually a child’s most pressing thought will be: What can be done about this? Some may act visibly distressed, crying or screaming or running away to hide in their room. Others may exhibit signs of shock or disbelief, sitting with a stone face or hardly saying anything. A few might think that you’re joking or trying to tease them. Some, of course, will have been expecting this and may not be at all surprised.
The types of symptoms children exhibit during divorce
Divorce is a negative life event that typically causes children sadness, anger, despair, and other troubling emotions. Children will react to these negative feelings in one of two ways: Either by externalizing, or directing this negativity outwards in the form of misbehavior, aggression, or emotional outbursts; or by internalizing their emotions, or directing this negative energy inward. This tends to result in withdrawal, depression, self-blame, and other psychological problems. In extreme cases, it could lead to threatening or attempting suicide.
Children may react through behavioral changes, problems
Some children may try to improve their behavior or become eager to please, either because they think it might save the marriage or because they fear abandonment by their parents. Other kids may start misbehaving, either out of protest over the divorce or as a means of getting attention.
Children may regress in their development
During times of stress, children often regress in their development, going back to earlier patterns of behavior that they had since grown out of. Things like thumb sucking, bedwetting, potty accidents, and reliance on comfort items may re-emerge. They also may regress in language and speech development, or in severe cases, stop trying to communicate to the same degree they did before.
Preoccupation with the divorce may lead to distraction, concentration problems
Among older kids, grades are likely to slip as a result of the stress in their lives, and children may have difficulty concentrating on tasks. Some kids may endure periods where they “zone out” in school or in the middle of a conversation. Symptoms resembling ADHD may also emerge as a result of preoccupation with the divorce and the distraction this causes.
Physical symptoms of divorce-related stress
The negative emotions, conflict, and instability typical of divorce causes children psychological distress, which may in turn lead to what are referred to as psychosomatic symptoms. These are physical ailments brought about by stress, and can include things such as headaches, stomach aches, loss of appetite, sleeping disturbances, excessive sweating, panic attacks, or other aches and pains. Psychosomatic symptoms are especially common in younger children, so kids may begin experiencing headaches or stomach aches more frequently. Parents may be inclined to believe a child is “faking” these things, especially if there is no medical cause. But even though the problem is the result of a psychological reaction, this doesn’t make these symptoms any less real.
Are there gender differences in a child’s reaction to divorce?
Studies that have examined the role of gender in divorce have produced mixed results. Some studies have suggested that boys may display more adjustment problems, yet other research has refuted this link or shown the opposite to be true, determining that girls have more problems than boys. So although there are not any monumental differences in the way boys and girls react to divorce, there are several ways in which a child’s gender could affect their experience, which we will discuss at the end of this chapter.