In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have
worked with children of all ages for over twenty years.
Usually parents drag their kids into my office complaining
of a litany of bad behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up
their rooms, to getting bad grades, hitting their siblings,
or worse, stealing, fighting or doing drugs. I work with
parents to change their children’s behavior. It is very
helpful for the parents to know their children’s experiences.
In my years of working with children in divorce situations,
the following feelings seem to come up more than others (not
necessarily in this order):
1) Anxiety. This is natural. Children feel anxious when they
are faced with uncertainty and big changes. In general, anxiety
is how we signal ourselves that there is something we cannot control.
The more intense the anxiety, the more we perceive the event or
experience to be big, overwhelming or in some way threatening.
Anxiety happens when we fear something and we are not entirely clear
about what it is we fear, or what it is that will happen.
2) Fear. In psychology, the definition of fear is when we know what
it is we are afraid of, regardless of whether or not we have control
over it. Again, this can be a small or big psychological event.
3) Anger. Children express their resentment, anger, even rage for
destroying their sense of normalcy, for clobbering their sense of
routine and what should be predictable. Angry outbursts are signs
that children are on overload and are not well coping with their
4) Depression. Sadness about the divorce and the above changes is to
be expected. Sadness is almost always present in these circumstances.
However, sadness coupled with hopelessness and/or helplessness and/or
anger suggests the presence of depression. This is especially likely
to occur if the child does not verbally communicate! Depression causes
a myriad of negative symptoms, including withdrawal from parents, loved
ones or peers, neglect of routine activities including playtime and/or
homework, and cessation of pleasurable activities.
5) Traumatic stress or shock. Trauma is determined by the child’s
experience of the event, not simply the event itself. Different
children in the same family may have dramatically different reactions
to divorce. The timing of the reaction is also highly variable. Trauma
may cause depression and anxiety at the time of the separation, or years
later. It may also reoccur during weekends, holidays or times when the
child misses the complete family unit.
6) Loneliness. According to some sources and my own observations in
many cases, this may be the bigger of the many overwhelming emotions
adult children report when they learn their parents are divorcing.
7) Loss or grief.