Question of the week: Why do behavior problems escalate when there is a divorce?



There are many things happening in a child’s life 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.

In “Divorced Kids” by Laurene Johnson and Georglyn Rosenfeld we read,

“It is more difficult to handle children during and after a divorce because both adults and children are experiencing many emotional ups and downs. Most frequently kids are angry, defiant, and heartbroken.” They go on to state, “When children can’t control their emotions, it is very difficult for them to control their behaviors.”

Let’s 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. They tend to withdraw from parenting because they get caught up in their own world of anger, loneliness, sadness and irritability.

Causes of unruly kids during and after a divorce

  • 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 the 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 TV and screen time overall
  • Lack of healthy diet with too much fast foods which can cause irritability

These are just a few of the reasons children’s behavior problems escalate. What are some of your ideas about why children’s behavior escalate after a divorce?


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

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7 thoughts on “Question of the week: Why do behavior problems escalate when there is a divorce?

  1. Children hear one or both parents talk against the other.
    Everything they have ever known has been shattered.
    They can believe if their mom or dad get mad at THEM, they will leave the child too.
    They do not have a home anymore. There is Mom’s house or Dad’s house. Where do they belong?
    Suddenly their life is full of issues like insecurity, abandonment, betrayal and the overall sense of loss.
    Loyalty issues arise and escalate as they try to maneuver between parents. They learn to lie and keep adult secrets.
    These and many more issues follow kids of divorce into adulthood.

  2. Linda, I find that we do not provide the structure and set limits because we are afraid of hurting them, feel guilty for divorcing and then we create insecurity. We as parents and leaders need guidance. I apporeciate your info and am looking forward to learning what they need.Thank YOU ! Laurie

    • Thank you Laurie. That is a good perspective that you have shared. In the future I’ll address why these kids don’t need your sympathy but they do need your empathy. Interesting concept and coming up in the future.

  3. I dont know if this can help at all but my family’s story. how my children were shatterd and how aai tried to counter remember this was 30 years ago . but people are people then and now.:

    Keeping Family Ties
    When I went through my divorce there was not so much co-parenting. I tried for many years to make my mrriage work because I knew how my little brother felt when my Mother divorsed his Father.
    I tried to let him have the children as often as he wanted them but it did not work out so well due to his drinking problem. The Kids would come home and say Mom cant you go with us, it just that Dad drinks all the time when we are there. His friends come over and drink too and he forgets we are there. So I had to eventually make it so he could see them as often as he wanted but at his Mother’s house or with her present. I also invited him every other weekend to go out for pizza with us, and maybe a movie my treat, he never had any money to take them anywhere. He decided then to move out west.
    His family quit inviting the children to any family functions, they felt very lost, so I started taking them there myself. The shocking look on their face when i first came to the door was hurendus to say the least. However they were cordual I had taken some gifts to the grandparents and one a peice for the kids from the grandparents so they would have something to open. The kids had fun with their cousins, but I cut our visit to an hour for safty sake. The next year their uncle called and asked if he could pick up the children. they went but came home with tears in their eyes and tales of all that was said bad about me. I just said they dont understand what they are talking about. Don’t worry. after another 2 years of this they refused to go any more. So I had a long talk with their uncle. Meanwhile I had taken them several times to see their grandparents. Their grandparents were very proud of them and the way whey were being raised. They started sending cards to not just the children but myself as well. A few years later their uncle called again and asked if he could pick them up, I said I do not care if they will go and you will be in charge of them. He said I will take care of it. They had a good time .
    Their father has moved home now that they are all adults and he is not required to pay any support or be responsible. He got out of all medical bills on the children, all medical bills on him while we were married and me as well. He also never had to pay any support after the first year at $10 a week . But ask my children I never lied to them, I never condemed him, I never cursed him, I never let them get away with saying they hated him. I always told them he is your Father, God let him be a partner in gifting you children to me. one day he will need you and you will be there for him. God does not allow you to hate him. Infact you are not to ever hate any one, for hate is an act of the Devil, not of God’s Children. You are God’s children on loan to me from him. It is my job to train you of what God wants you to know. Love not Hate is the best place to start.
    Today my family includes a new husband, 10 grandchildren, my -husband (who no longer drinks) his new wife and her children and grandchildren, because it is all in the family and we all get along for the good of the family. The grand children feel no since of friction as is how it should have been for my children.

    This is where Co-Parents need to be on both ends. Working together to teach their children that famiy is always family. And Family comes second right after God!

  4. Pingback: DC4K » Why does the child of divorce wonder, “Where Will I Sleep Tonight?”

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