Skip to main content

It is not uncommon to have a parent going through a divorce or custody case to raise the issue of their observance of regressive behaviors in their children. They often point to behavioral changes, such as bedwetting when they have already been potty trained, as evidence of a possible abuse allegation they want to raise. While regressive behaviors can associate with sexual abuse of a child, there are also more common explanations that are not caused by sexual abuse of the child.

Bed wetting is a common childhood occurrence, believed to affect between 5 to 7 million children over the age of 6 in the United States. Parents of very young children should remember that many physicians believe that children should develop bladder control by age 5. Secondary bed wetting after a child has been dry in bed for at least 6 months can be brought on by psychological stress.

In younger children, bed-wetting has been more frequently seen when parents are divorcing. An analysis of the Medical Research Council’s National Survey of Health and Development 1980 birth cohort confirmed a tendency towards ‘regressive reactions [1] in children experiencing a divorce. Children whose parents divorced before they were five years old were 50-100 per cent more likely to bed wet, soil or throw temper tantrums.

The relationship between bedwetting and divorce is not a newly discovered phenomenon. A 1946 study demonstrated similar results. Bedwetting amongst children who had experienced parental divorce before the age of six were more than twice the rate of those whose parents had not divorced. In addition, children of divorced parents were 50 per cent more likely to be admitted to the hospital, and, according to data from the second National Health Interview Survey on Child Health in the US, two to three times more likely to have been suspended or expelled from school and three times as likely to need treatment for emotional or behavioral problems. A meta-analysis of some 50 studies showed that the prevalence of juvenile delinquency in homes broken by separation or divorce is 10-15 percent higher than in intact homes. [2]

Bedwetting may be evidence of abuse, but it very well may not be. Bedwetting alone shouldn’t be relied upon as evidence the child is a victim of sexual abuse or trauma. Children exhibit regressive reactions to their parents going through divorce. One parent looking to exploit the opportunity may suggest the regressive behavior is evidence of sexual abuse, creating an atmosphere of accusation around the other parent which may then generate a series of allegations as a result of the highly suggestive atmosphere.

When parents are in the middle of a divorce and custody case, regressive behaviors in children are likely and shouldn’t be a reason to jump to the worst possible scenario. Doing so can do even more damage in and of itself. These issues should not be exploited in the divorce, but should be a sign to the parents to work together to address the anxiety, fear, and stress the child may be feeling. You should also discuss the issue with your pediatrician to rule out any physical or health causes. Your pediatrician can also help screen for evidence of abuse.

Divorce is a transitional time for everyone in the family and its impact can be significant psychologically. Regressive bed wetting should be taken seriously by parents. There are psychological, physical, and health reasons that may be bringing the behavior on that need to be addressed. Helping the child cope with the new reality of their parents’ breakup may require professional attention, but parents should be deliberate and cautious before jumping to extreme conclusions about anything but in all things be cautious.

The family law attorneys at The Smith Firm can assist in navigating the difficult issues facing children in your divorce and custody case. Contact us at (405) 843-1000 or contact us at firm@thesmithfirm.net to schedule an appointment to determine how we may be able to best assist you.


[1] N.R. Butler and J. Goding, From Birth to Five: A Study of the Health and Behavior of Britain’s Five Year Olds, Pergamon, Oxford, 1986.

[2] D.A. Dawson, Family Structure and Children’s Health United States 1988, Series 10:178, Vital and Health Statistics Public Health Service, Maryland, 1991.

Leave a Reply