Coping with Divorce: The Discreet Signs of Stress in Children 

Approximately 25% of American children, belong to divorced households.  According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, instances of divorce impact between 40% to 60% of recently married couples, and the rate is 50% to 70% among couples who have remarried, after divorce.   More than 50% of divorces occur in families with children who are under the age of 18 years.

There are a variety of factors that determine how well a child will navigate the stressful circumstances of divorce, that include the age of the child, personality traits, the duration of parental separation and the circumstances, or contributing factors to the divorce.  Natural responses can include shock, a deep sense of sadness, anxiety, anger and feelings of insecurity, but sometimes the signs of these symptoms of emotional distress can be subtle and difficult to detect.

In this article, we’ll share four common signs that are often missed by parents and caregivers, that indicate your child is experience adjustment and emotional difficulty, during your divorce:

1. Frequent Night Terrors or Restless Sleep

The content of bad dreams can be abstract, and when parents dig deeper into the themes behind the nightmares that their children are experiencing, it can at first, seem unrelated to household circumstances and coping with divorce.

After ruling out physical issues for sleep interference, with a physician evaluation and review of medical history for risks including seizures, head trauma or encephalitis infection, a counselor can offer therapeutic treatment for children who experience night terrors. Stress related sleep disruption can suppress the immune system of a child, and make them more susceptible to infections and illness, and cognitive obstacles to structured and social learning.

It is important to first address the issue with the family physician, and seek out counseling to identify the root causes of anxiety, and share adaptive tools and coaching, that will help your child better manage the stress of divorce.

2. A Change in Eating Habits

Children who are experienced heightened levels of emotional stress, can express their discomfort through changing in eating habits.  Depending on the individual child, this can appear as a complete lack of disinterest in favorite foods, to a significant reduction in appetite and weight loss.   For some children, stressful environmental conditions can lead to other problematic and abnormal eating habits, such as binge eating, or ‘hiding’ food in areas where they feel secure, like the child’s bedroom.

3. Symptoms of Head or Stomach Ache

Somatoform illnesses can present as complaints, that may be disregarded as normal health conditions that are not related to stress.  These can include headaches and digestive issues, or allergy types of symptoms that can mirror the common cold.

The diagnosis of Somatoform Symptom Disorder (SSD) is directly linked to the experience of prolonged and unresolved anxiety in children, and can also present with neurological and cognitive changes, such as reduced memory function or poor attention and focus.  The physical symptoms are a manifestation of emotional stress, and they can be misdiagnosed as inappropriate attention seeking behavior, rather than investigating the root causes of distress.

4. Social Disengagement in Previously Enjoyed Activities

Children do not stop participating in activities they have enjoyed, in a short-period of time.  Social withdrawal can include disinterest in social opportunities, such as playing with friends or family, lack of interest in team activities (such as school sports), and even withdrawal from engagement with family pets.  We all need time and space to process emotions, and opportunities to think independently, particularly when faced with lifestyle changes, but if your child appears to be deliberately avoiding the company of others, it may be a red-flag indicative of internal anxiety and/or clinical depression.

How Child and Youth Divorce Counseling Provides Adjustment Tools and Emotional Healing

Some children, who receive coaching and guidance through the divorce process, are able to emerge from the experience with valuable learning.  They can become more flexible and tolerant young adults, with a deeper understanding of relationships.  Some studies have also indicated that with the right support, healing for children of divorce households promotes other personal strengths, like independence and enhanced communication skills.

During the stress, and emotional upset during the dissolution of a marriage, parents themselves can become exhausted, overwhelmed and distracted from normal sensory observation.  They may not have the same intuition or resources to sit and speak with their children, and inquire about thoughts and feelings.

How Can Psychotherapeutic Counseling Help?

Providing counseling services for your child, gives them a safe place to discuss, ask questions, and express their fears and anxiety over major life changes.  It also allows the child to feel assured by an unbiased advocate; they feel comfortable sharing when they do not feel they are choosing sides, or being disloyal to either parent, by confiding.

To learn more about our child and youth counseling services, call us at: (301) 437-5311 or contact us on our website.  We’re here to help with quality therapeutic options, and flexible onsite or virtual counseling services for your family.