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Divorce and Anxiety in Children and Teens

Divorce can be a significant life stressor for children and teens that can trigger anxiety in multiple ways. Children are resilient and the research indicates that most children of divorce fare well. Nevertheless, even healthy, typical divorces can lend themselves to heightened anxiety because of the a major life transition. Moving homes, changing schools, shuttling back and forth between two homes, changes in routines, and even rotations in caretakers can be very stressful for children and teenagers. The increased stress and multiple simultaneous changes can result in heightened anxiety, which if not paid attention to, could blossom into more severe anxiety disorders. Hence, early interventions can prevent anxiety disorders in children and teens.

Anxiety in children and teenagers can exhibit itself in a variety of behaviors, and parents and teachers should be mindful of changes in mood, responses, and attitudes in the home and the classroom. Anxiety can be tricky to recognize, particularly in young children and teenagers, as it can mask itself and present in unusual ways that are not easily identifiable, and sometimes even misleading. Hence, it is important for adults to increase their awareness and recognition of varying presentations of distress, so that they can intervene early and hopefully prevent the further exacerbation of symptoms. Some typical markers of anxiety to pay attention to include:

  • Sleep difficulties
  • Increase in irritability
  • Increase in anger
  • Increase in fearfulness
  • Difficulty in focus and attention
  • Increase in temper tantrums
  • Increase in opposition and defiance
  • Increase in arguments
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased difficulties in friendships
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Bed wetting
  • Poor or inconsistent academic performance
  • Decrease in motivation
  • Separation difficulties

Although the above are possible indicators for anxiety, in a situation of divorce some children and teenagers may be further burdened by strong feelings of confusion, anger, blame, and guilt. They may be unable or unwilling to express these feelings given the complicated family situation, which can exacerbate their sense of helplessness, confusion, worry, and anxiety. Hence, it is important that the adults noticing these changes in the child’s or teenager’s behaviors, mood, and attitude further explore underlying feelings of loss, grief, helplessness, guilt, blame, and anger that could be fueling the anxiety.

Divorce and anxiety often occur simultaneously and are not uncommon experiences for children and teenagers living in the U.S., where approximately 50% of marriages end up in divorce. Most children are resilient and can overcome the major life stressor of divorce and cope well. Nevertheless, it is important for parents and teachers to increase their awareness and attention to the anxiety children are likely to experience during this major life transition. Recognizing the markers of anxiety, exploring underlying feelings related to the divorce, and providing appropriate early intervention and support will enhance your child’s and teenager’s adaptation, coping, and resiliency. Although divorce may not be easy for children to process or adapt to, early interventions can help enormously in ensuring your children will continue to thrive during and after this significant life change.