Why Do Kids Blame Themselves When Their Parents Divorce?

Published: December 22, 2012
Dear Why Do Kids Blame Themselves When Their Parents Divorce?,
Before I ask this question I'd like to thank you with all my questions I've previously ask and you guys have so graciously answered. :) But my question today is why do teens and children feel like it's their fault for their parents' divorce? How can you blame yourself for two people no longer getting along? And why does it make them so sad? Their parents are obviously very unhappy with each other. Wouldn't they want their parents happier when they split. My parents split when I was a small child and I turned out (somewhat) fine and I'm 18 years old. Do they secretly believe that their parents' divorce will somehow affect them? I just have always found this a bit idiotic in teens and children to be quite honest and I just don't understand.

Dear Why Do Kids Blame Themselves When Their Parents Divorce?,

There are certainly situations where parents may be happier people, and subsequently better parents to their children, if they end a marriage where they have been chronically angry, stressed out and/or unhappy. However, even in these cases there is going to be an adjustment and loss for the child – an adjustment to life with two parents not living together (such as dealing with visitations and switching houses for sleepovers) and loss in terms of having to give up on the idea of having an intact family. The ideal would be for a child to have their mother and father happily married and everyone living together – it is a loss to have to give up on this ideal, even when in reality it might be best for everyone.

So the sadness a child or teenager feels can come from having to adjust to something completely out of their power and control, having to give up on their hope of a loving, intact family, and it can sometimes come from feeling different from their peers if they do not know other kids whose parents are divorced. In addition, not all divorces are done in a civil and respectful way. There are many children who get caught between parents who are bitterly angry with one another, who have to deal with parents who don’t take responsibility for their children as they should (such as paying child support), or who deal with parents who are angry, sad, and or stressed out as a result of the divorce and are subsequently less emotionally available to their children. These children can easily be left feeling angry and sad about their situations.

As for why children often blame themselves, there are a few reasons. For one thing, sometimes it is emotionally easier to blame ourselves than to take issue with someone else. If the child blames himself, he doesn’t have to be angry at his parents or worry about damaging the relationship. Secondly, if the child blames himself, he may feel he has some power and control to change things. Third, children tend to be concrete thinkers – abstract thinking is not something that begins to develop until adolescence. It can therefore be difficult for many children to understand all of the complexities of why a marriage would end in terms of the relationship issues between a husband and wife. What kids do understand is that their behavior at times can be a problem – at home or at school. So a child who is thinking concretely may have an easier time thinking of a divorce as a result of something they have done compared with being able to understand the relationship dynamics between their parents. Finally, some parents may have difficulty accepting personal responsibility and tend to blame – they might send their kids the message that it is their fault rather than accepting how they have contributed to the situation and explaining to their children that the separation is something only between the parents.

Even in the best of circumstances, a divorce is going to have some impact on a child because their world is about to change, they have to give up on the idea of the happy, intact family, and they are powerless to change anything. However, just because two people get divorced it doesn’t mean it is going to cause irrevocable harm to their children. What will be particularly helpful for the children is if:

  • The parents can take responsibility for their separation and make it clear to their child it is not the child’s fault.
  • The parents are able to work together in a civil and respectful manner when it comes to matters pertaining to the children.
  • The parents are able to make their children’s needs a priority, making decisions based on the best interest of the children.
  • The children are not put in the middle of any disagreements or issues between the parents.
  • The parents do not bad mouth one another in front of their children.

Given that you have dealt with divorce yourself, FX is curious why you would be feeling judgmental of kids having difficulties adjusting their parents’ divorces rather than being understanding or compassionate. If you find that this is an issue that is troubling you, or you have questions or concerns about your own family dynamics, FX recommends you speak to a trusted adult who can provide you with some support and guidance.  

You are very welcome for any previous questions we have answered for you, and we hope you find this answer helpful as well.