Why are behavior problems compounded when there is a divorce?


I get asked this questions all the time:  “Why do behavior problems escalate when there is a divorce.” Having divorcing parens creates a lot of confusion in many children, not all children but in many children.

To a little kid there are crazy things start happening when parents separate or divorce. The child doesn’t understand adult problems and even though a lot of their friends have divorced parents, many children simply don’t know what the word “divorce” means. All they know is their parents were together and now one parent is packing their bags.

We need to face it, many parents are not capable of parenting effectively at the time of the divorce. They seem to go into a war mentality and the kids get caught in the middle of this war zone. Some parents tend to withdraw from parenting because they get caught up in their own world of anger, loneliness, sadness and irritability. I have walked this road and believe me until you have had to deal with it, it’s hard to understand how your kids could get put in the background. When kids have no one in charge or no one giving them the attention they need then many times behavior problems escalate.

Causes of behavior issues

  • Parents can’t agree on how to co-parent
  • There are different set of rules at each parent’s home
  • One parent becomes addicted to drugs, alcohol, porn, etc. They can no longer parent and the child is left on their own
  • Fear of the unknown
    1.  Where will I sleep tonight?
    2.  Will I have enough to eat?
    3.  Who is going to take care of my little sister and me?
    4.  Who is going to pick me up after school?
    5.  Will I ever get to see my dad (mom) again?
    6.  What’s going to happen to me?
  • Kids live in chaotic environment and they bring that chaos with them
  • Children’s emotions are bouncing off the wall and they can’t calm down
  • Children feel lost, afraid, alone and lonely
  • Children are using out of control behaviors as a bargaining tool to try and force their parents back together as in, “If the principal calls my mom and dad they will come to school and be together and have to talk to each other.”
  • Too much unsupervised time after school and in the evening
  • Too much screen time
  • Lack of healthy diet with too much fast foods which can cause irritability

After ministering to adults, many adult children of divorce, Robyn Besemann, author and developer of Chained No More, shares her thoughts on this issue. You will notice the similarity of what we have shared about young kids and what the adult child of divorce has said.

  • I heard one or both parents talk against the other.
  • Everything I had ever known had been shattered.
  • I thought if  mom or dad got mad at each other, they would get made and leave me too.
  • I didn’t have a home anymore. There was Mom’s house or Dad’s house. Where did I belong?
  • Suddenly my life was full of issues like insecurity, abandonment, betrayal and the overall sense of loss.
  • Loyalty issues would arise and escalate as I tried to maneuver between parents.
  • I learned to lie and keep adult secrets.
  • These and many more issues followed me into adulthood.

These are just a few of the reasons children’s behavior problems escalate. There are many more.


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on Feb. 14, 2014.

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