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How to Tell If Your Kids Are in Distress

If your child exhibits signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety, or emotional turmoil after a divorce, they may be distressed. 

Helping your child through a divorce may be one of the most challenging tasks you ever undertake as a parent. Not only must you deal with your own emotions, but you must also try to keep feelings of negativity, anger, or blame toward your spouse to yourself. Providing reassurance and stability to your children, at a time when you are hurting the most, is a tall order.

The good news is that many parents have been in your shoes and navigated this process successfully. The American Academy of Pediatrics has suggestions about the types of messages you should communicate to your children based on their stage of development and how to address unspoken questions they may have about divorce.

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 through different signs and symptoms.

Signs of distress in younger children

Anxiety. Though anxiety takes many forms, you are looking for a change in how much your child worries about or fears certain things. Are they becoming increasingly stressed about homework, tests, or making mistakes? Has your child 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 signs that your child is suffering from anxiety.

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

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

Bedwetting. Regressive behaviors such as bedwetting, baby talk, wanting a bottle again, or trouble sleeping through the night are all indications that your child is struggling emotionally.

Signs of distress in older children

Anger or Depression. Anger and sadness are natural emotional reactions to 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 or disrespectful to adults and peers. Other children may show signs of depression such as 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 behaviors like violent outbursts or exorbitant purchases may occur. Risky behaviors 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 your child’s grades, is a sign that they are in distress. Poor grades can be linked to stress, anxiety, depression, and more.

Self-Harm. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare for their child to have suicidal thoughts, but the reality is that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 10 to 34 year old’s. If your child exhibits feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or social withdrawal, they could be considering suicide. Other signs to look out for include a sudden preoccupation with death, direct expression of feelings like wishing they were no longer here, or inflicting self-harm such as cutting, burning, or hitting themselves.

Don't ignore signs of distress in children

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 regularly talking to their teachers, coaches, or other mentors. If you feel like your child is struggling, don’t wait to get help. Seeking assistance from a qualified therapist may be one of the most important decisions you ever make for your child’s long-term health and happiness.

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