attachment issues and divorce

One of the most common causes of attachment issues in children is parents getting divorced. Whether the divorce followed periods of frequent arguments or falling out of love and needing space from each other, young children often internalize messages like “relationships don’t last” or “their parents left them, not their partner, by choice.” These beliefs can have a lasting impact on their outlook on relationships and can lead to attachment issues.

How Does Divorce Affect Attachment Issues?

For most children, separation means suddenly dealing with change and experience unexpected losses. Many parents struggle with how to explain the transition to their children, depending on how old they are. Without presenting this information in an age-appropriate way, children are unsure how to cope with the changes they experience, especially if they have to move, switch schools, make new friends, and adjust to parents dating other people. 

Regardless of whether the divorce was on mutual terms and settled smoothly, multiple studies have found that poor school performance, low self-esteem, behavior problems, distress and adjustment difficulties are associated with divorce. This is correlated with the age of the child whenever the divorce occurred. While adolescents are more understanding of divorce and may have had more information about how it would affect them, younger children are more likely to experience these struggles, even if it is unconsciously linked to the change in their family dynamic.

Shifts in Family Roles

Many parents struggle with being single-parents and balancing work responsibilities with parenting responsibilities. They may jump back into the dating scene and bounce from potential partner to potential partner, trying to recreate the positive aspects of their previous relationship, encouraging their child to get to know various parent figures before they disappeared from their life. They may also dive into a second job to support everyone as the head of household and expect their child to be more self-sufficient. In treating them like a mini adult, they are more likely to turn to them to process personal struggles that they are having, even if their child doesn’t know how to offer appropriate support. 

Inconsistent Interactions with Parents

If divorced parents live in different cities, there may be months in between visits. For young children, this can feel like a lifetime. Even if custody is split half and half, kids may have to adjust to a new set of house rules every few days on top of a new neighborhood, a new room, and different possessions kept at each house. Or, they may feel like they are constantly in transition and live out of a suitcase. 

While they may maintain close relationships with each parent individually, it can be difficult to maintain separate lives when staying with each of them. They may know “this parent lets me do this thing, but if I do the same thing at my other parent’s house, it’s not going to go over the same way.” This can lead to splitting between parents to get what they want or going to one parent for some needs, but not others, which ultimately teaches them that they have to “plan” when they want to get their needs met, rather than expecting to be supported unconditionally.

This phenomenon is natural in most families–whether parents are together or divorced–but can become more confusing for the child if their parents are separated.

Lack of Stable Relationship Model

In childhood, parents are their child’s first and primary role models for all kinds of behaviors, whether they are intentionally teaching them to follow in their footsteps. Most children learn to idolize their parents and believe that they are making the best choices, or that they are fated to make the same ones. 

Children whose parents get divorced are more likely to see relationships as temporary and may sabotage their own relationships to confirm this belief. They might refuse to talk to or see one parent or struggle to go anywhere or do anything without another parent. This is a way of taking their relationship with their parent into their own hands in order to “protect themselves” from feeling left behind. 

Family Therapy Helps Work Through Attachment Issues

Attending family therapy after divorce can help parents learn how to co-parent and help their child face their attachment issues. This may look like identifying what role they believe they play in the family and if they believe this has changed since their parents got divorced. From there, we explore how these patterns show up in their other relationships and what they would like to change. Addressing their fear of abandonment or their fear of being a burden early on can help them develop healthier relationships through adolescence and adulthood.

Asheville Academy Can Help 

Asheville Academy for Girls is a therapeutic boarding school for middle school girls ages 10-14. Our students commonly struggle with anxiety, depression, ADHD, learning differences, and attachment issues. We are a relationship-based program that focuses on building meaningful connections through teamwork, group therapy, experiential activities, and small classrooms. Parents stay actively involved in their daughter’s therapeutic journey by learning skills through family therapy and workshops.

For more information about our family therapy programming, call 800-264-8709. We can help your family today!

Cat brings more than thirty years of experience making an impact in the lives of adolescents. Cat has developed multiple programs helping children, teens, and young adults in a variety of settings and with a diverse range of diagnoses. She has dedicated her career to behavioral health and is honored to be part of the passionate team at Asheville Academy for Girls. She recognizes how delicate this age is and is proud of the role she and her team play in helping girls grow and prosper.