The Impact of Divorce on School-Aged Children

Childhood is a constant evolution of emotions, behaviors, and beliefs about how the world works. When divorce shakes up a family, this process of growth and development feels the shockwaves. When assessing this impact, school counselors may struggle to determine whether these shifts are the expected developmental growing pains or whether they are signs that a child is struggling with the divorce.

Listed below are frequently observed behaviors and emotions for children experiencing a divorce in their family, based on their developmental level, as well as signs that extra interventions and attention may be necessary on the part of the school counselor.

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Working with Younger Students (Ages 5-8)

Children at this developmental stage need to feel secure in their families. When they experience this safety and reassurance, they feel encouraged to explore the world around them and make new friends. But when this security is threatened by divorce, children may feel angry or sad. They might feel guilty and blame themselves for what happened, secretly thinking that their bad behavior caused the divorce. Children in early elementary school may feel worried that parents are going to stop loving them, so they may misbehave to test whether this is a justified fear.

Signs of Struggle with Divorce

  • Difficulty concentrating on schoolwork
  • Frequent crying or emotional distress
  • Lack of interest in fun activities
  • Headaches or stomach problems
  • Increased separation anxiety

For young children, any regression to earlier behaviors, such as wetting the bed, throwing tantrums, or wanting a pacifier, might indicate they need extra support during this time of transition.

How Elementary School Counselors Can Help

Above all, school counselors are called to be active listeners for their students. Create a safe space for them to express their sadness and feelings of loss, anger, shame, or embarrassment. Don’t dismiss their worries about their parents, and listen to their fears, no matter how irrational they may seem. If they feel too scared to express these fears to either parent, consider having a meeting with the parents where the child can safely express these worries. Help the parents communicate to the children that the divorce wasn’t their fault, and that they will never stop loving them.  


Working with Older Students (Ages 9-12)

Children in late elementary school to early middle school are testing out new levels of independence. During a divorce, they may feel stuck in the middle of fighting or embarrassed when parents have public conflict. Children in this age group commonly express anger about the changes in their routine or living situation. And if they see one parent in particular who is struggling with the change, they might take on increased responsibility for the emotional health of the parent.   

Signs of Struggle with Divorce

  • Feigned antipathy for activities once enjoyed
  • Premature interest in sex
  • Headaches or stomach problems
  • Increased conflict with peers
  • Overfunctioning in responsibilities  

How Middle School Counselors Can Help

Because older children may feel the pressure to take on more adult responsibilities in the family during a divorce, school counselors can help redirect their focus to taking care of themselves and expressing their emotions. Counselors also can help them try out activities they enjoy and encourage them to simply “be a kid.” By involving parents in the work, school counselors can also make them aware of the pressure their child feels to keep them happy during this difficult time.


Working with Teenagers (Ages 13-18)

Teenagers are tasked with the preparation to someday leave home and live independently. During a divorce, they might take on additional adult responsibilities, and it can be easy to forget that they are still developing emotionally and ethically. Teens might struggle to see far into the future and imagine a successful adulthood, or they may consider themselves to be invincible as they experiment with new and risky behaviors.

Signs of Struggle with Divorce

  • Extreme negativity or criticism
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Increased aggression
  • Poor academic performance
  • Substance use

How High School Counselors Can Help

A school counselor takes a teenager’s perspective and listens to how they make sense of what has happened in their family. An adolescent might take responsibility for what has happened between their parents or feel that they have to care for their younger siblings. They might anticipate having to sacrifice their own plans for the future or feel guilty for wanting to leave home sooner than planned. A counselor may choose to involve the parents to assuage some of these fears. A counselor can also encourage the continued development of a strong sense of self-esteem for the teen and help them see beyond the present toward a hopeful future.

Finally, school counselors can be aware that long after a divorce is over, children may have new questions and concerns as they enter new developmental stages. By having the patience and the foresight to field these emerging issues, counselors can help foster a level of resilience that will serve a child long into their adult life.


For more resources, visit Students and Divorce: A Guide for School Counselors.