Divorce and Separation

What are the Most Common Responses of Young People to Separation or Divorce?

The effects of a break-up can appear at different times in young people. They may not process their feelings for some time or may not understand or believe what is happening or can react instantly to the divorce or separation.

Some of the most common behaviours of a young person involved can often include:

Guilty Responses such as:

  • Destructive behaviours
  • Self-blame or guilt
  • Self-destructive or self-harming behaviours
  • Superficially positive behaviours

Angry and Defiant Responses such as:

  • Impulsive and impatient behaviours
  • Anger at others
  • Oppositional, rebellious, defiant, or conduct problems
  • Breaking rules and testing limits
  • Anger at self
  • Early or increased sexual activity
  • Violent thoughts or behaviours

Despondent Responses such as:

  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Apathy, depression or failure to accept responsibility
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviours

Children will experience different emotions and display different behaviours when their parents divorce or separate. You can reduce the impact on children by ensuring you have good, continuing communication and honest responses to their questions.

Children may:

  • Be scared of becoming separated from one parent or the other
  • Feel loss because their place in the family and the family itself has changed
  • Talk about and create plans or situations to get their parents back together
  • May hide or deny their own feelings and so should be encouraged and allowed to express their feelings and frustrations too
  • Feel guilty - they may think if they had been better behaved or cleverer at school this would not have happened
  • Take on responsibility for their parent's divorce is a heavy load to carry. Ensure children are reassured and released of any guilt
  • Feel divided loyalties which lead to confusion and further guilt. Reassure them that you both feel it is important to still see and care for both parents equally
  • Bottle everything up and show no apparent emotion on the outside. They are likely to need help to express their feelings possibly through counselling or therapeutic intervention, otherwise they may show signs of depression later
  • Regress to even younger years emotionally - bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, difficult behaviours, sleeplessness and tantrums may all re-appear and are signs of worry and insecurity. This is especially so in younger children.

It is Important to note that:

  • Children between six and nine are very vulnerable. They are still very dependent on the security of mummy and daddy. They can frequently react with anger, lack concentration or experience problems at school. It is important to address difficulties straight away to avoid more deep seated problems later.
  • Some older children may express a preference for which parent they would like to live with, others may continue to be torn apart by the decision. They may react to the divorce with anger, grief or depression and it is common for behaviour to become more challenging and for performance at school to deteriorate. It will be important to consider counselling or family therapy together with individual therapy in order to help children to accept the situation.
  • Parents should never criticise an ex-partner in front of their child. It can be tempting, but is very unfair. Children know they are part of both parents and they may feel they are as 'bad' as the 'ex' is. Never say in anger 'you are just like your father/mother'. A child may associate that with your rejection of each other and feel they are also going to be rejected by you.