Effects of Divorce on Children: What to Expect in the Early Days

Signs to Look for in the First 6 Months Following Your Divorce

While every family and every situation is different, there are some common effects of divorce that you'll want to be on the lookout for after you first tell tell your children about your divorce or separation. To some degree, all of these behaviors can be considered 'mini' cries for help. They are your kids' way of letting you know that they're not okay and that they need your support. But remember: seeing these effects of divorce in your kids does not mean that they won't be okay. They're just letting you know that they need more of your time, love, and attention while they're going through this difficult adjustment. Regardless of your kids' age or the specific circumstances of your divorce, here are some of the top emotions, behaviors, and concerns to look for in your kids during the first six months:

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Fear of abandonment

Fearful 7-year-old girl
Fear of abandonment can be a lingering effect of divorce. Photo © Sydney Bourne/Getty Images

Many kids experience a renewed fear of abandonment in the first few months. In fact, it's one of the most common effects of divorce for kids of all ages. Once a child loses someone close to her, it's natural for her to be afraid that others may leave, as well. As a result, you may find that your child is extra clingy or needy. She may also experience developmental regression, which means going back to earlier behaviors or stages, such as thumb­-sucking. This is quite common and, in and of itself, is not cause for alarm. Your reassurance, unconditional love, and the passage of time will help your child learn that you really do mean it when you say that you won't leave.

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Uncertainty about the future

It's also natural for children to feel unsure about what lies ahead when the rug has been pulled out from under their feet. And even if you were expecting the dissolution of your relationship or the loss of your partner, your child may not have seen it coming. That's why it's so important to introduce as much stability as you can during this time.

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Magical thinking

This is a coping mechanism in which children (and adults) try to manage or control negative experiences by connecting their thoughts or behaviors to the situation's cause or cure — often in wildly inaccurate ways. For example, a child may wrongly conclude that earning poor grades led to his parents' divorce, or that improving his behavior will bring his parents back together. It's important to be on the lookout for evidence of magical thinking after you announce your divorce or separation so that you can help your child work through the emotions she's feeling. Just as important, you can help her put others' responsibilities back in their rightful place instead of taking them on herself. 

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Another defense mechanism your child may rely on is an "I don't care" attitude. This may play out directly in response to your separation, divorce, or loss, or it may show up more indirectly in her approach to schoolwork or other interests that she previously enjoyed. In some cases, apathy can also signal depression, which warrants a conversation with your child's pediatrician and may also require the assistance of a trained counselor or therapist.

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Rapidly changing emotions

Your children may seem happy one moment and fall apart the next. This is to be expected. Try to be firm but loving at all times. Put yourself in their shoes, and it'll be easier to respond with patience instead of anger.

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Lashing out at trusted adults

As an involved parent, you may bear the brunt of your child's anger or distress. Sometimes this is because she senses that your love is unconditional, which makes you a safe person to act out in front of. Other times, your child may blame you — as the residential parent — for the other parent's absence. Respond to these effects of divorce by letting your child know that you love her and are there for her, even when she displays her worst behavior.