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ASK MOM: Boy displays anti-social behavior when mom and dad divorce

Oct 14, 2022 01:17AM ● By Mary Follin & Erika Guerrero

THE PROBLEM: My 4 yo son isn’t coping well with my husband’s and my divorce. Unfortunately, the months leading up to the separation were pretty tense; I’m ashamed to admit we fought a lot, even in front of our son. Now that we’re separated, things are calmer in our home, but I’ve got a lot of fear about finances and being on my own, which my son is picking up on. He’s shoving kids at school (he even bit one) and spends a lot of time in the ‘think-it-over’ chair. Sometimes, he’ll just go over to a table and sit under it by himself, and the teacher can’t coax him out. He’s also having night terrors, which I know is because of the situation he’s in. I’m working on changing the situation so I’m not as anxious, but what can I do to make things easier for him?

MARY SAYS: My heart goes out to you. You're watching your son struggle to cope with your divorce, and it hurts. Children can be deeply affected by changes in the family dynamic, and it's natural for them to exhibit behavioral changes, which may continue for a while.

Please make it a habit to remind yourself that this, too, shall pass.

The good news is, there’s a lot you can do to help your son. First and foremost, create a stable and nurturing environment in your home. Children thrive on routine and predictability, so establish a consistent schedule. Be patient, loving, and reassuring, as he will have LOTS of questions and emotions to process.

This next one is critical: make sure to shield your son from any further conflict or tension between you and your ex-husband. I understand this is a two-way street—you can’t control your ex-husband’s behavior—but do what you can to encourage open communication between the two of you to ensure you put your son’s needs above your own desire to lash out. This might mean swallowing your pride and setting your agenda aside, but it’s worth it! (You might also find this to be a great practice that works its way into other areas of your life as well.)

Teach your son age-appropriate strategies, like using words to express his feelings or engaging in calming activities such as drawing or slowly counting to ten. Children need coping skill just as we do, and too often, we neglect to tell them exactly what to do.

And finally, encourage your son to think positively about his dad! Assure him that your divorce is not his fault and that you both still love him. Make sure to schedule consistent visitation or quality time with his father if it’s appropriate; a sense of connection with both parents will alleviate some of his anxieties and fears.

During this time, be sure to take care of yourself. Seek support from friends, family, or like-minded groups that can provide emotional support and understanding. By addressing your own fears and anxieties, you'll be better equipped to help your son move beyond his.

ERIKA SAYS: I was in your shoes just a few short years ago, so before I dive in, I want to say I'm sorry you’re going through this. It's not for the faint of heart, but I know you will get through it because you are a warrior. When moms are faced with adversity, we adapt and pull through. Life will knock us over sometimes, and it's our job to show our children how to get back up and keep moving forward, problem-solve, and adapt to situations that are less than ideal.

My son was an infant when my divorce started, so he didn’t display behavioral patterns such as hitting and biting others. However, he was increasingly clingy and whiny at times. As far as he was concerned, life was always just me and him. He had no memories of the three of us. It wasn't until he was around your son's age that he realized most kids have a mom and dad under the same roof, and he began to question why we didn't live together.

Now that he is seven years old and his father lives closer, I'm beginning to see some behavior changes in him that have become somewhat challenging. For me, asking is always the best approach. My son tends to open up when we spend quality time together, just the two of us playing, eating dinner, or in bed snuggling. We talk about his feelings or particular events, with me asking questions like:

  • What’s going on lately?
  • Are you having a hard time with something?
  • Is something bothering you?
  • Do you have any questions?

These kinds of questions help get the conversation going. From there, I'm able to coach my son to the best of my ability, so he’ll understand best practices for healthy ways of expressing his big feelings.

I also research books we can read together about our family dynamic. These are great to have on hand after meltdowns, incidents at school or with other children in social settings, or at bedtime to provide some food for thought. Keeping things as normal as possible helped my son then and even now in my co-parenting journey with his father.

As far as his father goes, I address all issues privately with my ex, and I don’t speak negatively of him in front of my son. Sometimes, we slip up, and that's okay. We’re human and make mistakes. You may not always be able to shelter your son from disagreements, but it's how you come to a resolution and take accountability for your part in the argument that matters most.

I know it's hard not to stress about life after divorce, but find yourself a village you can rely on that will shower you and your son with love and support—and help keep you somewhat sane! Having a tribe helped me with my sadness and frustrations immensely, and I was a better mom for it. Seek therapy for tools to cope with your situation. Sitting with someone for one hour weekly did wonders for my mental health. When I took care of myself first, I was better able to provide a healthy environment for my son.

ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in! 

If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! [email protected]

Read more ASK MOM advice.

 Mary Follin is the author of Teach Your Child to Read™ and ETHYR, winner of the Moonbeam Children's Book Award and the Gertrude Warner Book Award. She is mom to two grown sons and enjoys sharing her more seasoned perspective  with parents of younger children. 

Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.


Suzanne Johnson, mother of five children and grandmother of eight, is an illustrator, book cover designer, and author of the Realms of Edenocht series.

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