Most of us can tell when our children are upset because they act out. They scream, yell, throw temper tantrums, or begin to have struggles in school. Children do not have the ability to bridge what they are feeling with their actions unless taught to do so. So when your child exhibits any of the following behaviors that may not have been as prominent before your divorce, it may be time to talk with them:
1. They “grow up” or act older than their age. This often occurs in children who are pleasers and they want you to be happy, so they will put their “child needs” aside to help you and show you that they are not a burden and that they are capable, strong, etc. What it most often really means is that they are scared and worried and don’t want to make things worse, so they are putting their needs aside for you. You can assure your child that you have got things under control and will do your best to ensure life is functioning and as normal as it can be, but that it will be difficult to adjust to a new life. Let them know that it is OK for them to remain the child and to have fun, and you will carry the grown up stuff for the time being.
2. They “act out” or begin to get into trouble, perhaps bullying or picking on others more. This typically means that they are really scared and hurting inside and no one is “really listening” to them, so they show their hurt to the ones who are vulnerable and weaker than them. Often times these children need love and attention. They need a safe place that will not shame them, belittle their feelings or make them question what they are doing. Spend QUALITY time with them. Play games, go for walks, sing songs, draw pictures, paint, tell stories, camp out in the living room, play baseball or basketball, fly a kite, whatever it takes to just be (and put all electronics away, including the TV).
3. They “get quiet” or shut down. When a child shuts down and gets quiet, it often means he/she is unsure how to express themselves. You can help them by letting them know they can talk with you anytime and that you will ONLY LISTEN. When you are done listening, ask them what they need, this will help them to learn about their needs and feelings. Spend time with them after this. Take them for a drive, go to the mountains, go on a hike, roller skate at the park, fishing, activities that support little talk but allow for a space to be OK with not talking. If they are ready, they will open up; if they don’t, keep doing it, it will eventually come out.
4. They “turn into babies.” Whenever I see children who talk like a baby, or act like a baby, it typically translates to them wanting love and affection. So rather than belittle them or tell them to act their age, when they are out of the baby talk moment, ask them to snuggle with you for a little bit. Sing a song with them, draw a picture with them, go for a walk, take them out for a meal (and don’t bring your phone or another person).
5. They “begin to hate you” or they treat you as though you are a fault for the divorce. You may or may not have been the decision maker in your divorce, however, this is not the reason your child is angry. They are angry because they are hurt and scared and “their feelings” in the situation probably were not taken into account when the divorce decision occurred (which is very normal). When a child is angry at a parent, it often means that they feel safest with that parent so they take it out on them mostly because the parent of choice will not hold it against the child or retaliate. You can tell them that it is OK for them to be mad at you, you understand their anger, you might be angry too if you were in their shoes, but that you never intended to hurt them and you are sorry for their pain.