Handling children’s emotions can be very challenging on its own, but adding a divorce to the equation makes it even more challenging. As a family lawyer and a mother, I can attest to this truth. In my work as a family lawyer handling divorce and child custody cases in Bergen County and Monmouth County New Jersey, I have experienced situations involving families not knowing how to effectively manage complex emotions their children face as a result of their divorce. Some emotions you can expect to encounter include defiance, grief, or a change in their behavior. This article explains four ways to possibly help manage and cope with your children acting out in divorce:

Understand Their Trauma

Place yourself in their shoes for a moment. Imagine being a young child, or even a teenager, and not having the capacity to process your emotions as you do now. With this in mind, how would you genuinely feel when finding out that your parents are getting a divorce? It would probably cause anger, confusion, or hurt. Understand that your children may need some time to process everything. Allow them to do so, but keep the lines of communication open also. Let your children know that just because you have divorced, it is not their fault, and they aren’t loved any less. Additionally, discuss your expectations regarding possible behavioral changes and acting out. Your children should know those behaviors are not tolerated. To combat this from happening, develop alternative ways for them to cope with the divorce. This could include enrolling them in karate classes, encouraging them to learn an instrument, or practicing meditation.  

Hold Them Accountable

When the aforementioned understanding has taken place between you and your children, become their accountability partner. Ensure they are upholding their end of the bargain by checking in with them, correcting bad behaviors, and reminding them about the agreement that was set in place. Going through a divorce can be rough on everyone, not just children. When they realize and understand that you could be having a difficult time coping also, this could reinforce positive behaviors within your children. Stand firm on what you and your children agreed upon and don’t waiver. They will respect you even more in the long run once they notice you’re holding them accountable. 

Provide A Safe Space

It is not uncommon for children to waiver from maintaining positive behaviors, then acting out as a result of the divorce. Their emotions can be similar to a rollercoaster effect. Based on my experience, I’ve observed that some parents get frustrated and punish children when this happens. Instead of taking that route, provide a safe space for your children to vent to you. Listen to them without judging and provide constructive criticism. Your children should know they can come to you when they need to talk, instead of avoiding you. 

Seek Counseling

If the methods described above don’t work, I highly recommend hiring a certified counselor in your area that specializes in children’s behavior and/or child psychology. They might feel more comfortable speaking to someone outside the home, rather than their own parents. However, it wouldn’t be wise to randomly arrange for your children to meet with a counselor without speaking to them first about it. It could cause resistance. This should be the last resort – especially if your children’s behavior worsens, and you notice they have changed drastically since the divorce. If possible, arrange for both parents to be there during sessions. Speaking with a credible counselor will help to manage negative behaviors better and discover the underlying causes of their defiance.


This article contains general information and opinions from Sheena Burke Williams and is not intended to be a source of legal advice for any purpose. No reader of this article should act or refrain from acting on the basis of information included in this article without seeking legal advice of counsel. Sheena Burke Williams expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on any content in this article.