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Do Children Need Therapy During a Divorce?

By Debra Schoenberg

Parents engaged in a high-conflict divorce and custody dispute likely have concerns about the psychological well-being of their children during this emotionally difficult time. According to advocates for child welfare, about one in two marriages in the U.S end in divorce, affecting more than a million children per year. About 10% of these divorces involve custody litigation.

It’s important to recognize how your child is coping emotionally as a result of the stress associated with a major life change like a divorce.

Even marriages that end amicably can still create turmoil for a child who has to adjust to new living arrangements and family dynamics. Studies have shown that children who experience divorce may exhibit antisocial behaviors, anxiety, and depression. It’s normal for children to feel sadness and to struggle with the new circumstances but if their sorrow persists for several weeks, your child may benefit from seeing a family therapist.

In high-conflict divorces, children may experience on-going court hearings, multiple petitions for change of custody or visitation, or have watched their parents display intense feelings of bitterness and resentment towards one another. Mental health experts familiar with the dynamics of high-conflict divorces say that if you notice changes in your child’s behavior that affect their ability to function in their daily lives, that is a huge red flag requiring professional help.  Here are some of the important signs to look for that can help you decide if therapy is the right course of action for your child.

  • A change in sleeping patterns and eating habits
  • Lingering feelings of sadness, anger, or negative emotions
  • Difficulties with school work and concentration
  • Behavioral problems like lashing out
  • Changes in behavior that is recognizable by close friends and family members

A professional can evaluate and assess whether your child needs therapy. Mood swings and oppositional behavior is common even in children who are not dealing with a major life change like divorce. A therapist can tell the difference between an upset teen, for example, and one that needs treatment. Talking with a therapist offers your child a neutral party who will listen to concerns without judgment. A therapist can also teach the child adaptive techniques to handle emotions when problems arise.

Depending on their age, children will cope with divorce differently and every child will experience different levels of emotional trauma. While you can’t control how your child will react, you can work with your ex on ways to reduce conflict and remain a supportive and nurturing parent. Provide a routine your children can depend on for structure and assure them that they can count on you for security, stability, and comfort. By giving your children the support that they need, you can minimize tensions and allow them to emerge from this turbulent time feeling more confident, stronger, and loved.