Question of the week: What are the causes of kids being unruly during and after a divorce?



Many things are happening in children’s lives when their parents separate or divorce. Children don’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 up to leave.

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.  … When children can’t control their emotions, it is very difficult for them to control their behaviors. (p. 9)

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, or porn and can no longer parent. The children are left on their own.
  • The children fear the unknown:
    • Where will I sleep tonight?
    • Will I have enough to eat?
    • Who will take care of my little sister and me?
    • Who is going to pick me up after school?
    • Will I ever get to see my dad (mom) again?
    • What’s going to happen to me?
  • Kids live in chaotic environments and 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 use their out-of-control behaviors as a bargaining tool to try to force their parents back together. For example, they might think, “If the principal calls my mom and dad, they will come to school and be together and have to talk to each other.”
  • The children have too much unsupervised time after school and in the evening.
  • The children have too much TV and screen time overall.
  • They lack a healthy diet and eat too much fast food, which can cause irritability.

Robyn Besemann, who developed Chained No More, a curriculum for adult children of divorce and childhood brokenness, has the adults in her program share what most negatively impacted them:

  • Children hear one or both parents talk against the other.
  • Everything they have ever known has been shattered.
  • They believe if their mom or dad gets mad at them, the parent will leave the child, too.
  • They do not have a home anymore. There are Mom’s house and Dad’s house. Where do they belong?
  • Suddenly, their life is full of issues such as insecurity, abandonment, betrayal, and an overall sense of loss.
  • Loyalty issues arise and escalate as they try to maneuver between parents.
  • They learn to lie and keep adult secrets.

The adults have shared that these and many more issues follow them into adulthood.

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


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on Feb. 17, 2014.

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