Divorce and Kids Emotional Experiences

It is unfortunate that 50% of all marriages end in divorce in the United States. What’s more, marriage has been in a steady decline since 2008 (National Center for Family & Marriage Research NCFMR).  Kids, by nature, are very self-focused, which can often lead them to believe that their parents’ divorce is their fault. Kids will often blame themselves and begin to internalize beliefs that they could have prevented their parents’ divorce if only they were better, smarter, funnier, or less argumentative with their parents.

Young kids are still learning and developing their more complex adult thoughts and feelings, which means they may lack the ability to fully comprehend that divorce is not about them.  Young kids in their developmental stages may not yet have the language or understanding of divorce. There are many emotions that children can experience when their parents are divorcing.  Children may experience one or multiple emotions at varying times during the divorce process and beyond. It is extremely important for adults to understand the impact that it can have on the children.


When parents’ divorce, kids often feel it is their fault because throughout their early learning years most of their unpleasant experiences were their fault. So, it is only natural for kids to blame themselves for the turmoil in the family. Dr. Brené Brown (Daring Greatly)informs us that shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance or belonging. 

Healthy guilt is when someone has done something and realizes their part in the negative result and then tries to fix it.  For a child, if they take on responsibility for their parents’ divorce then, by this logic, they can also fix it – now, something that was out of their control is back in their control.  Kids may often believe that if they can be a better kid, follow directions, or get better grades that their parents wouldn’t have reason to fight.  Kids often have trouble dealing with emotional ambiguity because of their emotional inexperience, which can lead them to believe that their behavior is the reason for their parents’ divorce.  An adult, on the other hand, can understand how they can feel angry with someone and still love them.  But kids often think in black and white.  When they are mad at someone then they no longer like them. Once the dispute is resolved, they can return to being friends.  For kids, the two concepts cannot exist together.

Anxiety and Separation

Because children’s brains are still developing, the sudden loss of a routine can often make them feel out of control and fill their lives with uncertainty.  The anxiety of not knowing what to expect can make transitions very difficult for kids.  They may feel anxious about moving to a new neighborhood or attending a new school where they may not know anyone.  Moreover, a young kid could struggle with separation anxiety as they rotate back and forth between each parent’s home.  This can cause regression in kid’s development.  In some instances, a kid may return to behaviors they had already outgrown like bedwetting, thumb sucking, and throwing temper tantrums.


Kids experiencing divorce may often feel anger and betrayal by one or both parents.  Similarly, divorce can introduce financial changes and hardships in a family, which also can lead kids to feel angry that they can no longer engage in hobbies they enjoyed.  Kids also can develop jealous feelings towards other kids with intact families, leading them to act out their anger towards others like fighting at school or focus their anger inward with self-harming. 


Children may often fear losing one or both parents as they separate into different homes, move into new neighborhoods, and see one of their parents less often. Kids may often fear financial problems as both parent’s struggle maintaining different households.  As previously mentioned, because a kids’ developmental stage can prevent them from understanding divorce, that “unknowing” can often create fear.  Kids may experience a sense of powerlessness as the adults are making all the decisions.

Grief and Sadness

Kids often lack the adult understanding of divorce and the events that led up to it.  As such, kids can experience confusion, sadness, and may sometimes withdraw from their friends and family.  Kids will often grieve the loss of routine and the loss of familiar structures like their home, neighborhood, and school.  Kids may often grieve the loss of friends and the security of an intact family structure. Kids may struggle to accept the loss of the at-home parent that returned to work full-time.  This grief can impact a child’s outlook on life, which can create more negative and insecure feeling.  Eating habits can change and the child may withdraw more and begin to lose focus in school, which could adversely affect their grades.  The child may also feel torn between parents unsure which one to support or side with. 


It is important to communicate with your children and reassure them that they are not the cause of the divorce.  Also, remind them often that both of their parents love them very much and always will.  Seek therapy if your child continues to struggle in school, home, or with friends.

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