Children of Divorce and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Midge Cannin-Schuck

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a reaction to a traumatic event. That event could be an accident that a person is involved in or witnessed, a catastrophic event such as the continual news accounts of bombings, wars and plain crashes, or a situation in the family where a child’s safety or the safety of a family member is compromised. This compromised situation might be the death of a loved one or a pet or the divorce of a child’s parents. Many times we think we can shield a child of such pain; however, this is not always possible.

A loving parent might try to explain the hostility in the home to their child,.  In many homes divorce is discussed out-loud, with cursing, screaming, throwing things, slamming doors or an unspoken event of a parent not returning home or sleeping in another bedroom.  How can you explain that their home, a sanctuary, has turned into a war zone.

The primary concern of collaborative divorce attorneys, mental health specialists and financial specialist is not to have a child relive each and every fight in their dreams while sitting in class or watching an identical event on television or trying to working it through by speaking with friends.  It is this reliving of the event and the fear of uncertainty for their safety and the safety of family members that could produce PTSD.

There are three different groups of symptoms I would like to make you aware of:

  1. Intrusion- the re-experiencing of the trauma or traumatic event
  2. Avoidance- trying to avoid the situation that provokes the memories
  3. Changes in perception of the situation and/or the increase of situation that might produce the fears.

Many children who reside in a home where parents are getting a divorce might experience one or more of following symptoms that could create PTSD:

  • Recurrent and persistent memories of their parents leaving, one or both parents crying, the fear of loss of money, verbal and physical fighting, and the criticizing and humiliation of the other parent.
  • Recurrent dreams of fighting in the home, fear of loss of one or both parents, the thought that if one parent does not want the other then perhaps that parent would not want them either.
  • Acting or feeling as if the fighting, yelling, crying, and even worse the non-communication, is happening over and over again.
  • Intense distress related to the distress- this distress could be seen in physical symptoms, for example stomachaches, headaches, and possibly the reduction in their immune system and chronic sickness.
  • A decrease in interest or activities once enjoyed. A feeling of sadness so pervasive that there is nothing that brings a feeling of joy.


A child who worries about their safety, home, future and the future of their family might have difficulty expressing those feelings. This could be evident in the child’s sleep patterns; tossing and turning, not being able to get to sleep or stay asleep.  A child’s inability to sleep could bring a whole new set of problems such as concentration in school, staying focused long enough to learn a new concept, falling or failing grades, and/or a possible change in personality. Children who are rarely angry seem to be angry either more often or anger more quickly and could exhibit their anger and sadness in physical ways such as fighting.

A child might have recurrent nightmares of parents fighting, threating each other and the continual tone of high tension in the home (that constant feeling of impending doom).

It is not unheard of that when a child approaches the front door, they remember the turmoil in their home, and in their mind-eye they see the abuse or hears the words over and over again.

As parents are mending themselves or their relationship, many times supervision for the children is not available. The parent might not be monitoring games played or peers the child associates with, and the most available babysitter is the television. More and more television shows depict sex, infidelity, divorce, violence, drugs and coarse language.

When a child sees a parent cry, their first response is to help make the situation better, but with divorce they cannot. The parent could go in the other direction and direct all their attention to the child, thereby producing a feeling of suffocation or worse yet, the feeling that the child is relied on to fix the parent (s) issues.

PTSD develops when parents are constantly fighting with one another, day in and day out.

PTSD develops as parents become dysfunctional. The home is no longer working as in the past. Parents who are divorcing are not always able to think as clearly as they did prior to making the decision to divorce.

There is a way to reduce the possibility of a child experiencing divorce as a traumatic event that will result in a major mental health disorder. It is called the Collaborative Divorce.

A Collaborative Divorce will not result in taking away the pain that is the normal response to the ending of a relationship, but it can reduce the fears that are a normal reaction for a child who is experiencing divorce along with their parents. Remember, no one asks a child if he wants the divorce or if his parents should divorce.

When parents decide to end the marriage, their first obligation is to the child. How can a child be told of the divorce and be able to observe their parents settle their affairs in a manner of respect and, hopefully, friendship?

When parents turn to collaborative divorce attorneys they are brought together in an office setting. Through their collaborative attorneys, each parents’ individual thoughts and feelings, along with separation of marital property, child support, and alimony if any, are discussed.

In some situations a mental health specialist can be present at the meeting.  This is to help each parent rephrase the message that is trying to be conveyed and not conveyed in an accurate manner, when angry and hurt,  producing a misunderstanding, The mental health specialist will rephrase the message in an acceptable, style which usually has more accuracy, especially when the words do not come out the way intend.

The mental health specialist can also be a coach to assist the parents in discussing the divorce and how their child will always be the center of their lives. They will assist the parents in participating as a single parent, collectively as well as  individually, for events that both parents will attend, such as sports events, marriages, etc.

To further assist a child and to reduce a possible traumatic memory, if a television show is being viewed that depicts divorce as hostel, the parent could promotes security by saying that their divorce is not a loss but a growth for future endeavors.

There may also be a financial specialist available to discuss the parent’s individual assets, and what is truly needed for each partner to continue with his own life.

As the child sees the parents being civil, discussing the situation and not showing unnecessary anger, they too can feel more secure in knowing that while their parents might not be married, they are civil and always emotionally available to him.

A Collaborative Divorce allows a child to watch his parents separate with respect for one another and the family setting. There is no bickering about the other parent and the child can grow to love each parent in a new and individual way.

Written by:

Midge Cannin-Schuck
Licensed Professional Counselor
1 Hadley Avenue
Toms River, NJ 08757
(732) 286-2501

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