How to Tell If Your Kids Are in Distress

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Helping your child through a divorce is one of the toughest tasks a parent will undertake. Not only must you deal with your own raw emotions, but you must also keep any feelings of negativity, anger or blame toward your spouse to yourself. You must be calm, cool and collected for your kids, providing reassurance and bringing stability back into their lives, at a time when you are hurting the most.

It’s a tall order but take heart: many other parents have been in your shoes and navigated this process successfully. The American Academy of Pediatrics has suggestions about the type of messages you should communicate to your children about divorce based on their stage of development and how to address unspoken questions they may have.

But what if, despite all your best efforts, your children are not adjusting to the change? How will you know? Depending on the age of your children, distress from divorce may present itself in different ways.

Signs of Distress in Children

Younger Children


Anxiety takes many forms, but what you are looking for is a change in how much your child worries about or fears certain things. Are they becoming increasingly worried about homework, tests or making mistakes? Have they started worrying about riding the school bus or making friends? Are they scared to leave your side? Are they obsessively worried about the weather or the future? Any of these could be a sign your child is suffering from anxiety.


Anxiety can also express itself by making your child physically sick. Excessive worrying can result in feeling shaky, jittery or short of breath. Your child may suffer from frequent stomach aches or headaches.


A child may start having frequent bad dreams. Nightmares can be a part of a child’s reaction to a trauma.


Bedwetting or other regressive behavior, such as baby talk, wanting a bottle again, or trouble sleeping through the night are all indications your child is emotionally struggling.


signs your teen needs help

Older Children

Anger or Depression

Anger and sadness are natural emotional reactions to a divorce, but if they go on for an extended period, it’s important to get help for your child. Some kids may become belligerent to the point that they are disruptive in school and disrespectful to adults and peers. Some kids may show signs of depression, feeling extremely sad and lonely, withdrawing from activities they used to love, having an extreme lack of energy or exhibiting other changes in sleep, appetite or self-esteem.  

Behavior Changes

Impulsive behavior, such as violent outbursts or exorbitant purchases may occur. Risky behavior, such as experimenting with drugs or alcohol, engaging in sexual activity or even taking part in extreme or dangerous activities, needs to be addressed right away.

Poor Grades

A sudden struggle in school, reflected in their grades, is a sure-fire sign your child is in distress of some sort.


Suicidal thoughts by a child are every parent’s worst nightmare, but the reality is that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34. If your child exhibits feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or social withdrawal, they could be considering suicide. Your child may show a sudden preoccupation with death, watching different types of shows on television or visiting various websites. Some kids may directly express a feeling of wishing they were no longer here, that it could all be over with or that they feel dead inside. Some kids may inflict other forms of self-harm, such as cutting themselves, burning themselves, picking at their skin or wounds, or hitting themselves.
spend time with children after divorce

Don't Ignore the Signs

It’s important to pay extra attention to your children during and after a divorce by spending one-on-one time with them, taking an interest in their activities and friends, and talking to their teachers or coaches regularly. You know your child best. Trust your instincts. If you feel like your child is struggling, don’t wait to get him or her help. Seeking the help of a qualified therapist may be one of the most important decisions you ever make for your child’s long-term health and happiness.

TalkingParents blogs are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Always consult with a qualified attorney regarding legal matters.

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