Why Children Feel Guilty When Parents Divorce

Why do children feel guilty when parents divorce? Children are not born knowing the rules they must live by. Early on they learn the rules from the adults in their life. It is not always a pleasant process for the child, as they are told “no” a lot. Children frequently experience unpleasant feelings when verbally, non-verbally, or through some form of consequences they are told what they are doing is not correct. Children initially feel bad about themselves but those reared in healthy environments begin to learn the rules and success breeds more positive feelings.

As a teacher I had empathy for my students whose parents were going through a divorce. In speaking with my students I learned what a large role guilt played in their thinking. When parents divorce the child often feels it is their fault. Why? Because as indicated above, during their early learning years most of their unpleasant experiences were their fault. So it is natural to blame themselves for the turmoil in the family. For many children it is very difficult to change their feeling of guilt because it has become their default position when problems occur in their family. It is difficult for the child to blame their parents because the parent is their source of correct behavior. After all, wasn’t it the parent who taught the child how to follow the correct rules? The child reasons at their developmental level, “How can my parent be at fault? I must have done something to cause this.” 

What can parents do? First and foremost agree that the welfare of the child is paramount. Then it is important for both parents (together if possible) to give the child a framework that is age appropriate to make sense of the divorce. It may be something as simple as, “Mom and Dad cannot live together but we both love you and will continue to take care of you.” The framework statement of course will be much different for a 6-year-old than a 16-year-old child. Explain to the child it is the parent’s choice and it is not their fault. You will have more success if you have this conversation more than once.

Now that you have given the child a framework, ask them to tell you in their own words why their parents are getting a divorce. This will allow you to see how well your explanation has been absorbed. The 5-year-old child will understand divorce and responsibility with the mind of a 5-year-old. However, when they are 6 and their understanding of the world and causality has changed some, they will need to hear again why their parents are divorced and that they had no part to play and therefore no room for guilt. This process may have to be repeated and modified for the child well into high school.

The child’s tendency to blame themselves for problems in their world dies hard. Guilt over something you have no control over is a tremendously heavy burden. Generally, their natural guilt about divorcing parents will diminish over time, if they have a framework that makes some sense to them and if they are told in different ways over the years, “It was not your fault, it had nothing to do with you, we both loved you then and we love you now.”

*As a final thought, if someone (usually a parent, grandparent, step-parent) bad mouths the other parent or if a child/teen overhears or is told negative points about their parent, it would not only greatly affect their relationship with the parent but also how they see themselves. This is because a child is half their mom and half their dad, and in influencing the child to dislike a parent, they are inadvertently causing the child to not like half of themselves.

Also see: Effects of Divorce on Children (Change Equals Stress)

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9 Responses to Why Children Feel Guilty When Parents Divorce

  1. lpzg says:

    I felt guilty because I was part of the problem. I was acting selfish & self-centered despite the additional problems it caused in the family. The ends justified the means whenever I wanted to get my way & I would work my parents against each other. It was all about me & making myself happy. I accept my share of the blame. Sometimes you are wrong. You apologize, learn from those mistakes, and life goes on.

    • JD says:

      This is a classic example of how a child is taught that being “selfish & self-centered” is bad. It is a child’s right!
      If a child feels a need to manipulate parents to get her/his needs met, then s/he has exceptionally lousy parents! No matter what problems they’re going through, the child has to get attention first b/c s/he is DEVELOPING. This is exactly why humanity is screwed up so much compared to wild animals which for the most part are dedicated to their offspring.

      Unfortunately people who grow up in this situation carrying the burdens of parental responsibilities, blaming themselves, most often become crappy parents themselves. They had learned that parents can get away with anything, so in turn they put blame on their kids quite early, giving them a message that they’re “selfish”, hence “bad”.

      Thus the cycle continues.

      Instead, in case of divorce parents should be extra supportive and empathetic to their child. And not allow the idea that a child is somehow that omnipotent to even cause them to “turn them against each other” against their own will.

      Like I said, just a classic example of parental brainwashing and bad parenting. For the sake of your own children, re-think what you’ve been taught.

      • AS says:

        I feel the exact same as Ipzg. I only just realized I felt guilt and that I was responsible for my parents divorce yesterday. They divorced when I was 11 I’m 33 now. I’ve lived with these gnawing feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression for so long. Just the realization of why I have felt this way is so freeing.

        I just wanted to thank you JD for your comment. It puts things in perspective and helps me to recognize some things in myself and my parent.s I just appreciate you taking the time to write this out. It helped me. Really. Thanks!

  2. sgarland says:

    The only purpose of guilt is for us to learn from it and then move on. Guilt doesn’t serve a purpose beyond helping us learn a lesson so we don’t repeat the same mistake. Also, in your case you were a child, the adults in your life made their own decisions. Sounds like you have learned from your mistakes and are therefore wiser. So–guilt has served its purpose and it’s good you can let it go : )

  3. Alice says:

    My spouse and I are planning our own divorce and we want it out of the court to lessen the stress on the household, and the child. Is there another possibility for divorce to be done online? Thistoo seems ok ( http://www.thistoo.co for reference), but I’m doubting on whether or not it’ll be trustworthy, as they are handling a lot of confidential information. Does anyone have experience with online divorce? Any suggestions would be appreciated thank you.

  4. Pingback: Worries Every Mother Has About Getting Divorced (& How To Deal With Them) - MeaningfulWomen.com

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  6. L says:

    Divorce should be against the law unless there is abuse or cheating. The children get the worse of it all. I am almost 60 and still hurt and feel guilty over my parents divorce. My dad still hates my mother. My mother still tells me not to act like like my father. It’s been a horrible life for me.

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