In this article, I discuss how to identify the cause of these issues which points to steps you can take to address them.


Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

I sometimes work with parents who are separated or divorced and who have children with behaviour issues. These issues typically manifest themselves at home, at school and/or daycare, during recreational activities and in other settings.

Addressing these concerns is best done by taking a two-step approach. First, use strategies to identify the source of the child’s behaviour issues. This will then suggest strategies to use to address problems which stem from the source which has been identified. In the following sections, I will discuss how you can execute these two steps.

Determining the cause of the problem: Check the timing

The first step in addressing your child’s behaviour problems in a separation or divorce situation is to determine the primary cause of the problems. This can best be done by checking the timing of the onset of the problems.

If the problems began or significantly worsened in time with the separation and divorce or conflict leading up to these, it suggests that your child’s behavioural problems are a result of the separation and divorce and conflict related to them. It is probable that their problem behaviours are reactions to upsetting thoughts and feelings they have about the separation or divorce. Because they may not believe they have a constructive way of dealing with these thoughts and feelings, they become expressed in a nonconstructive way through problem behaviours.

On the other hand, if the problems began or significantly worsened before the separation or divorce occurred, it is likely that they are the result of factors other than the separation or divorce. These are more likely to be long-standing issues which need to be addressed.

How to proceed if the cause of the problem is the separation or divorce

If the timing of the behavioural problems points to their being the result of your child’s thoughts and feelings about the separation or divorce, taking steps to help your child deal with these thoughts and feelings constructively is the best way to proceed. The manner in which you help your child do this will vary based on their age and personality.

For many younger children and especially those who are not as able to express their thoughts and feelings verbally, giving them nonverbal ways such as drawing or play to do this may be the way to go. It may be helpful to do this with the guidance of a therapist.  For older children and especially those who are better able to express their thoughts and feelings verbally, giving them the opportunity to talk with you or with a therapist can be effective in finding out what their concerns are.

Once your child has been able to express their thoughts and feelings about the separation or divorce, this will often lead to cognitive and/or behavioural steps to address their concerns. For example, in some instances your child may express emotional distress as a result of their negative thinking about events and people (including themselves) involved in the separation or divorce. Helping them to view things in a better perspective can often reassure them and allow them to feel better.

At other times, your child’s expression of distress and the thoughts accompanying it may point to behavioural changes that will allow them to feel better. For example, were your child to express sadness at missing one parent when they are staying with the other parent, taking steps to allow them to have more contact with the other parent by phone or video chat would be a behavioural step which may help your child to feel better.

How to proceed if the cause of the problem is not the separation or divorce

If the timing of the behavioural problems points to their not being the result of your child’s thoughts and feelings about the separation or divorce, this leads to taking steps to address more long-standing issues rather than ones brought about by the separation or divorce. As is the case if the problems were the result of the separation or divorce, cognitive and/or behavioural steps can be taken to address the concerns.

Various forms of therapy may be helpful in this endeavour. In some instances, a therapist working with the child individually to help them learn and practice skills from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be warranted. At other times, learning and practicing parenting skills may be the right course of action. Finally, family therapy involving the parents and their child discussing and addressing issues is sometimes a piece of the puzzle. A skilled therapist can guide you in the steps you need to take to help address your child’s issues whether they stem from separation, divorce or other root causes.

May you take steps to address your child’s behavioural issues,

-Dr. Pat