Divorce and Kids: Managing Your Child’s Behavior When the Family Breaks Up


mom talking with teen daughter

Managing your child’s behavior during the best of times can be challenging. But, during a divorce, it can seem nearly impossible. Divorce is traumatic for everyone involved, but particularly for children. For them, their whole world is changing, and the future is unknown. The most powerful people in their lives have decided to go on a completely different course. And they may react to these changes by acting out in unexpected ways.

Parents who are going through a separation or divorce, or have already been through one, should be aware of the issues it may cause with their child’s behavior. Their child may withdraw. They may have frequent angry outbursts. Schoolwork may suffer. And teens, especially, may begin to take part in risky behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use. Understanding these problems and having effective tools to deal with them are crucial for parents.

Divorce and Separation is Traumatic for Kids

Divorce is traumatic for kids because it overpowers them. They don’t have the tools or the experience to manage the overwhelming feelings and changes in their lives.

Children deal with their feelings in various ways, depending upon the child’s personality and nature. Fear is often the core feeling: fear they’ll lose what they have and fear they won’t have the things they want.

In regular times, kids use their parents to manage their fears of the unknown. When kids get anxious about the future, they have an unconscious mechanism that tells them their parents will take care of whatever is bothering them. They do this often and without thinking about it. Divorce changes all of that.

Expect to See Fear, Anger, and Grief in Your Child

The major emotions involved with divorce are fear, anger, and grief. Children fear that things are changing, and they don’t know what they’re changing into. They’re angry that they have no control over the situation. And they grieve that the family they knew has perished. It’s as if it died, and they must, over time, mourn the loss of their family.

You’ll see kids act out the stages of grief. They’ll be in denial about the divorce’s significance, angry about how it affects them, and then bargain with their parents to figure out how to keep them together. And, eventually, if it’s a healthy grieving process, they’ll come to accept it. But acceptance takes time and work.

As a parent, you will see the anger, fear, and grief in your child’s behavior: verbal or physical acting out, increased defiance, school problems, and frustration with siblings or the residing parent.

So the first thing parents have to understand is that when the divorce is announced, the kids will experience a lot of insecurity about what the future holds. Parents may also feel that insecurity themselves, but, as adults, they feel empowered to manage it. But not the kids, who will most likely feel powerless to do anything.

Kids in Divorce May Have Financial Fears

It’s a sad fact that divorce causes financial problems. The money that was used to support one household is now going to support two. Indeed, a major cause of poverty among single-parent families is divorce.

Your kids may wonder, “What’s going to happen to my parents? Are we going to have enough food? Will I have clothes? Can I still go to the mall on Fridays? Will we be able to do the same things?”

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These questions all float around in the kids’ heads. Some fears have to do with the parents and the family’s well-being, and some are age-appropriately self-centered. Parents will do well to focus on these things when they talk to the child about the divorce.

Not All Kids Will React To Divorce the Same Way

Typically, your child’s fear during a divorce may manifest itself through a process of shutting down. Kids will isolate emotionally and physically, spending more time in their rooms or out of the house. They may appear more secretive. They withdraw because of some instinctual feeling that this is the best way to protect themselves.

In some cases, you’ll see that one child will buckle down and do okay in school, and the other child will give up and stop working. These two very different reactions may even occur in the same family.

No matter how the kids handle the divorce, they generally don’t want to talk about it with either parent. This creates problems for parents who desperately want their children to understand the divorce from their perspective. These parents think: “If only my child understood why the divorce is necessary, perhaps she would accept it easier.”

Therefore, don’t force your kids to talk with you, but be available if they want to talk about the divorce or any other subject. Let them know you’re open to talking about things without explicitly citing the divorce.

Seek outside support when necessary. Certain types of counseling can be beneficial to kids who are experiencing grief after a divorce.

As kids get older and mature, school performance, friends, and sports become sources of strength, depending upon the individual child. And that’s okay.

Continue To Hold Your Child Accountable for Their Behavior

Single parents have to develop a culture of accountability in their homes once the separation or divorce has taken place. A culture of accountability says to your child: “You are still accountable for your behavior here at home.”

So no matter what else is going on outside the house or whatever feelings the child is having, including those that come from legitimate sources, the child is responsible for their behavior.

Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work

Don’t sacrifice your family values and rules just because your child is going through a tough time. Being structured and clear about family rules after a divorce is helpful to kids. Remember, it’s during tough times that we need reliable structure the most. Limits, accountability, parental support, and outside support are all part of a culture of accountability in the home.

Have a structure that defines the responsibilities of each child. Outline the way siblings have to treat one another and how they have to treat you as the parent.

Set clear expectations about curfews, phone use, electronics time, and schoolwork. Hold kids accountable for not meeting their responsibilities. And don’t let things slide because of your divorce. You certainly don’t have to be punitive, but you have to be consistent.

There’s No Excuse for Abuse From Your Child

There are many situations where divorce creates a power vacuum, and the child takes advantage of it by being verbally or physically abusive. This can be especially troublesome in families where the children don’t reside with the parent who had been the primary limit-setter. All families, and especially single-parent ones, should have the following rule: “there is no excuse for abuse.” Abuse should never be tolerated or ignored in your home.

Related content: Parental Abuse: What to Do When Your Child or Teen Hits You

If children are older and test the limits by being physical or threatening, do not hesitate to call the police. These are difficult situations for parents, but no one should have to live in fear of a family member, even if it’s your teenage child.

“Dad Lets Me Do It at His House”

As I mentioned, a single parent must develop a culture of accountability in their household. What happens at your ex-spouse’s house is none of your business, except in cases of safety. Do not let it become part of your child’s alibi system.

When your son or daughter says, “Dad lets me do this at his house,” tell them that they’ll have to wait until they get back to Dad’s house because there are consequences for that behavior in your home.

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You may feel frustrated with the way your ex-spouse parents your children, but don’t try to control what goes on in the other parent’s home. That’s a dead-end street.

There are many situations where parents cooperate after the separation or divorce, but let’s face it: people typically divorce because they no longer get along, so cooperation can only go so far.

When Your Ex-Spouse Tells Your Child Too Much

Many ex-spouses tell their children details of the marriage that you would rather they didn’t know. Revealing sensitive information is a common occurrence, and angry and defiant kids may use this information against you. As a parent, you have to work on not giving this information power.

If you show your child that this information has power over you—that it causes you to get angry and react—they will continue to use it against you. Therefore, it’s most effective to remain calm and say to your child:

“Your mother can say whatever she wants at her house. But we don’t talk about that here.”

I personally don’t think you should discuss specifics about the divorce with your children. I think you should say:

“That’s Mom’s opinion. You’ll have to talk to her about that. In my house, I don’t blame your mother, and I don’t let her blame me.”

Understand this: separation and divorce usually don’t occur or don’t emanate from a peaceful, easygoing marital situation. There are often occurrences, such as strong arguments and fights, blaming, cursing, and bad feelings that precede the actual separation or divorce. For better or worse, kids have witnessed what’s occurred, and they probably know the truth.

And if you teach your children not to make excuses and not to justify inappropriate behavior, which are the foundations of a culture of accountability, they will be better prepared to identify when the other parent is using excuses and justifications to explain their behavior.

Do’s and Don’ts of Parenting After a Divorce

There are many “do’s” and “don’ts” for parents after a divorce, but here are a few that I think are crucial:

  • Don’t push kids to talk about the divorce if they don’t want to. Be inviting but not demanding. Let them know there are other resources available to them outside of the family.
  • Do hold kids accountable for their behavior. If kids are acting out, be clear with them. Let them know that even if they’re acting out because of the divorce, they’ll still be held accountable for their behavior.
  • Don’t talk negatively about the other parent. It’s never a good idea.
  • Don’t jump into another relationship and expect kids to be accepting of that person. That may soothe your sense of loss, but for kids, it’s only confusing and frustrating.
  • Don’t try to have deep, meaningful conversations with your kids about the divorce. They may try to act mature, but they’re not little adults; they’re kids.
  • Do acknowledge that things have changed.
  • Don’t share all your fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, or grief with your children. They’re not at a level of development where they can handle that. It often makes them feel like they have to take care of you, and that’s not a good position for them to be in.
  • Do family organizational planning and structuring without emotions. Sit down and let kids know what roles are going to change. Don’t do it democratically. Don’t ask for opinions or votes. It’s not helpful to kids to put that responsibility on them.

Related content: Parenting After Divorce: 9 Ways to Parent on Your Own Terms

When To Seek Family Counseling

Family counseling is a very tricky issue. Some therapists say that it should not include both parents and the kids because it may promote the fantasy in the kids that their parents might get back together. Other therapists believe that even in the case of divorce, the family should address it together as a whole system, kids and all.

If you end up having sessions with parents and kids together, both parents must agree upon strict ground rules and agendas. Remember, it is very likely the differences in perception, interpretation, and behaviors that led to the divorce in the first place could be acted out.

In some cases, kids will not want to participate in these types of therapeutic activities. In my experience, if kids are managing the divorce and the other areas of their life well, they should not be pushed to be involved. But if they’re having behavioral or academic performance problems, behavior management therapy should be on the menu, and it should focus on teaching them to manage the problems and feelings underlying the behavior.

No Two Divorces are Alike

You are reading this article for a reason—you want to understand your child’s behavior during a divorce and what to do about it. Just know that there are as many types of divorces as there are types of families. Each family creates their own little theater in which the divorce is acted out.

Therefore, keep an open mind and learn from many different sources because not everything will apply to your situation. In some families, divorce is a way to get out of an abusive or destructive relationship, in which case those children ultimately benefit psychologically, even though they still face fears and even feel loyalty toward the offending parents.

Divorce carries an inherent risk of damage to the children involved. The more quickly the adults going through the divorce take responsibility for being parents instead of spouses, the better the chances the children will have of adjusting to the new reality of their lives.

Finally, remember that divorce and separation are legalistic terms. Once one parent moves out, the kids’ adverse emotional experience begins, no matter how it’s labeled.

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James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (5)
  • Concerned girlfriend
    My boyfriend and his ex have been separated for two years. The children (11 & 13) live with her. The 13 year old is dealing with it just fine. The 11 year old just wants to keep giving her father a hard time. When they come to visit there areMore rules that are not followed and there are consequences for their actions. I feel like there are no consequences for their actions when they are with their mother because every time they come back we start all over. It's hard for consistency when the other parent let's them get away with everythingreat.
  • Ricky
    Wow, I did not come from a divorced family but my partner's parents never married & were totally separate until her dad's death. The major factor I am looking at divorce is because of habitual lying, lack of integrity in words and actions & avoidance to dismissal of accountability. IMore just cannot Square the effects it will have in the children. Knowing there personalities, I see the extremes they probably will shift deeper into & what they may suffer.
  • Anna Levis

    People opt for legal separation over divorce for many reasons that are personal, logistical, and financial.

    Among the personal reasons, you and your spouse may decide to take time apart to see if you really want to end the marriage. You may have religious beliefs that make divorce an unacceptable option, but you wish to live separately and protect your financial future in the process.

  • Eric
    Eric Theriot - Don’t jump into another relationship and expect kids to be accepting of that person. That may soothe your sense of loss, but for kids, it’s only confusing and frustrating
  • jessie4harrison
    Divorce I think is harder on the kids than the parents. Especially when they see their parents fighting over every little thing. That's why I'm working to get my nieces and nephews into counseling. My sister is getting a divorce and I see it taking a toll on the kids.More I just think I should look for one of those programs you mentioned in your first paragraph.
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