Examining Separation Anxiety in Children of Divorce

  • Separation anxiety can manifest in children of divorce.
  • Many children feel like they are losing a parent during a divorce.
  • Physical symptoms can arise due to the stress from separation anxiety.

The psychology behind separation anxiety is fairly straight forward. The disorder is described as an extreme state of distress that is experienced when a person is separated from someone they’re close to or a place that they are familiar with, according to Psychology Today.

For children of divorce, child psychiatric disorders are a fairly common consequence of the parental separation. Children often are attached to the familial dynamic of having two parents under the same roof, and when they lose that dichotomy, they lose the stability and certainty that they have grown accustomed to.

Panic and uncertainty

Many children attach themselves to the idea that being a family entails being together under the same roof. Regardless of what the children have been exposed to, in terms of parental fighting or worse, they still can find themselves clinging to the idea that they need to have access to both of their parents at all times, in order to feel safe and secure.

The initial moment of separation anxiety is described as a moment of panic that children experience sometime during or after they are told about the situation. Depending on their age and maturity level, parents can expect tears and possibly screaming, according to the Mayo Clinic. This type of behavior can devolve, resulting in children refusing to sleep alone, complaints of being sick when perfectly healthy, refusing to go to school, or simply becoming extremely clingy.

‘Losing’ a parent

Much of the issue can stem from the idea that because one parent is leaving the home dynamic, another parent or sibling will leave, and they eventually will find themselves alone. This fear comes from the notion that after everyone leaves and you, the child, are all alone and will be in some sort of danger.

The idea of “losing” a parent can surface, which is a similar sentiment to one sometimes found in adoptive children. To a child of divorce, they have only known a life with two parents under the same roof, and for one parent to be under another roof for whatever reason, can be a difficult concept for children to understand. They do not always identify the larger picture in how their parents separating would be beneficial to the overall familial health and wellness, nor do they always understand that the familial dynamic should not include two angry and unhappy parents who argue and fight. For some children, they might consider that to be normal behavior in families and not be able to grasp the idea of another reality for their family.

Many parents might find additional difficulties in dropping off children to daycare. They might fear that they will never be picked up, and as a result, parents might have a difficult situation involving talking children into leaving the house in the first place.

Cordell & Cordell understands the concerns men face during divorce.

Risk of alienation

Noncustodial parents should be very active in helping your child through their separation anxiety, because this could have the potential to snowball into parental alienation, if not handled properly.

Because the noncustodial parent no longer living in the family home does not have access to the child on a day-to-day basis and the child and their separation anxiety are being counseled by an ex-spouse or soon-to-be ex-spouse with their own feelings and opinions regarding their unhappy marriage. This can sometimes lead to a child’s opinion regarding one of their parents to shift, damaging their relationship.

Physical issues

The stress of the experience of separation anxiety caused by parental divorce can often result in physiological symptoms, according to researcher Beno Arnejcic of Primorska University in Slovenia. In his research that was published in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention, he said that the symptoms of the stress of the situation may include stomach ulcers, sleep disorders, constipation, diarrhea, asthma, headaches, different types of rashes, restlessness, or stuttering.

Arnejcic’s research also points out the psychosomatic side of stress and how children can be adversely affected in this way during a parental divorce. This level of stress could result in a complete loss of appetite for some children. For other children, they can find themselves at risk for depression or melancholic behavior.

This behavior is consistent with the idea that for children of divorce who are experiencing separation anxiety, the jarring separation of two parents is similar to a loss. Additionally, for children, this is their loss. Because of how egocentric children can be at times, it requires children to process the fact that their parents’ breakup has very little to do with them personally. This is not always an easy fact for them to swallow, but it is one that will help children of divorce who suffer from separation anxiety move forward.

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