Preventing Mental Health Effects of Divorce on Children
Researchers have found that teachers and other school personnel may show bias against children in divorced families without even realizing it. This bias can impact expectations about a student’s academic, social and emotional functioning. Even though children are amazing in their ability to navigate the changes and challenges of life, students who experience this type of bias can be at increased risk for long-term mental health struggles later in life.
Recently, Counseling@NYU released a guide to help with this issue because it is essential for educators and parents to work together to ensure the effects of divorce on a child do not become permanent. Educators can use the guide to identify misconceptions about divorce that may impact their behavior and bias and to better understand their role in working with families going through a divorce.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to assess whether a divorce is negatively impacting a child or whether problem behaviors are just an expected part of the growing process. Knowing the signs of struggle according to age can help parents and educators identify whether a child needs additional support:
- Blame themselves or their “bad behavior” for the divorce
- Complain of headaches and/or stomach pain
- Experience separation anxiety and/or emotional outbursts
- Regress to younger behaviors, like needing a pacifier, wetting the bed or throwing tantrums
Younger children may lack the ability to communicate their thinking about the divorce. Parents should ensure young children that no bad behavior will ever make them leave or stop them from loving their child. In addition to seeking professional support, educators and parents should create space for children to express their fears and worries about the divorce.
- Most likely to show anger, embarrassment or frustration
- Might stir up conflict with peers
- Could show frequent tearful distress and/or lack of interest in activities
Children of this age may feel pressure to “pick a side,” keep both parents happy or take personal responsibility for one parent’s emotional well-being. Educators should work with parents to encourage students to try out new activities that can direct their attention toward play and creativity.
- Experiment with new and risky behaviors (i.e. substance use)
- Display extreme moodiness or negativity
- Begin demonstrating poor school performance and/or disinterest/distraction from their future
Teenagers experiencing the effects of a divorce might feel guilty about leaving home or feel that they have to change or sacrifice their plans. Parents can support teens’ mental health by encouraging them to pursue their goals and to plan for the future. Educators can do the same by listening to their students’ college goals, for example, and helping them plan.
At any age, individual professional counseling can be a useful space for children to express their frustrations outside the home and to get help for extreme changes in behavior. Educators and school counselors can also set up counseling groups for children in changing families so students know that they are not alone. With thoughtful and engaged parents and educators, children can maintain good mental health and healthy relationships later in life, despite divorce.
Michelle Manno is the education editor at 2U. She works with programs such as Counseling@NYU’s online master's in school counseling and online master’s in mental health counseling from NYU Steinhardt to create resources that support K-12 students. Say hi on Twitter @michellermanno.