When children need therapy after their parents' divorce

Children may benefit from therapy after times of stressful changes like those in a divorce. During transitional periods of major family changes, kids may have a multitude of feelings that are very confusing. The support and understanding given by co-parents may be enough for the child to move on. However, some children require a little more help that a professional counselor or therapist can provide.

Each child and each situation is unique. Professional help can support children in different ways. "Some children may have difficulty sharing their feelings, because they want to keep the family event a "secret." Other children can show their feelings by acting out, becoming violent, or becoming very quiet and withdrawn." The challenge is to help the child adjust and get back on track in a healthy way.

Below are some signs provided by Nithyakala Karuppaswamy with Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE that may indicate a child needs professional help. To qualify, some of these signs are fairly common; many children will do the things on the list at some point. It is when the behaviors become extreme or last for a long time, that the child may benefit from professional help.

Signs that the child might need professional help:

  • Long periods of sadness

The child may seem to be sad for several days or weeks. Nothing helps the child feel better. You try to entertain or distract him, but nothing works. The child may cry over both little and big things and not be able to stop. Children might not talk about being sad; they show sadness mostly through their actions. That means they might get in trouble and break rules to show they are sad.

  • Living in the past

The child may seem to think more about the past than the present. Many children will talk about the past when their family was together or when the family used to live in the old place. Some children may complain that they can't stop thinking about their parents' divorce, or the move. That is normal right after the event. At some point children should be able to move on and talk about the present, though.

  • Withdrawn behavior

Withdrawn children have little or no interest in playing or being with friends. They want to be by themselves instead of being with friends or adults. They want to stay alone all the time. They don't laugh, joke, or enjoy anything they are doing.

  • Problems saying good-bye to parents

The child may not want to let a parent leave at the beginning of the day. Or she may ask about the parents many times as the day goes on. This is a problem if the child was used to saying good-bye before the problem occurred.

  • Cannot concentrate

Some children may have a hard time getting things done. They may be distracted. Maybe they cannot settle on any play activities or jobs you give them. They may not follow instructions well. They may complain that they cannot concentrate.

  • Changes in daily habits

Children may change what they normally do. Some children may wake up, but may not want to get up. Or they can start having problems going to sleep. They may have nightmares. They may eat much more or much less than before. Adults may have trouble predicting what the children are going to do or when they are going to do it.

  • Return to younger behavior

A child may have been toilet-trained before, but now has accidents or needs diapers. Maybe a child will return to sucking his thumb or ask for a bottle. Some children may ask to be carried even though they can walk.

  • Feeling a sense of responsibility or guilt

This is sometimes a problem with older school-age children. They may think a divorce is their fault. They may believe that they are responsible for taking care of a parent or sibling. They may also feel caught in the middle of parents or other family members. They may say they have difficulty talking with a parent.

  • Feeling angry

Some children may be angry all the time. They may often get into fights with other children in the childcare. They may take their anger out on other children, and sometimes on adults, by hitting, biting, and shouting. Parents may complain that the children often fight with their brothers of sisters at home.

  • Temper tantrums

Some children might kick and scream more often than before. They might say no to everything you ask them to do. Every small problem seems to become huge.

  • Feeling anxious and worried

Some children may worry a lot. They may worry about the parents when they are not at home. They may worry about their parents physically hurting each other or them. They may find it very difficult to separate from one or both parents.

  • The parents cannot help the child

Parents may have a difficult time with their own feelings. A major change in the family affects all family members. Some parents may be dealing with many changes in work, schedule, or living situation. The child needs more, but the parents cannot help at this point.

Many children do the things above at times. If the problems start suddenly after a divorce or other stressful event, the child may need extra help. Getting help is important if:

  • the signs are more extreme than you normally see in other children,
  • they last day after day or week after week, or
  • you have tried to work with the child, but the problems continue.


You and your ex, as co-parents, are responsible for supporting your children in the adjustment process during and after the divorce. Knowing if and when therapy is needed may be a timely investment in your children's future. Source: Does the Child Need Counseling? by Nithyakala Karuppaswamy with Judith A. Myers-Wells, Ph.D., CFLE