How Children Respond to Divorce: Age Makes a Difference

The focus during a divorce is often on the custody, alimony and division of assets with little attention given to the emotional cost of the children involved.  The devastating impact of divorce on a child of any age cannot be underestimated, and should be attended to with special care and compassion. It is also important to recognize that the most profound impact on children of divorce takes place within the first year making it essential for parents to address their children’s emotional adjustment from the very beginning. There are many factors that determine how a child will respond to the news of divorce, but the one variable that has consistently been shown to effect outcome is age.

Children Under Five
The presumption about children this age is that they don’t really understand what is happening. While their limited cognitive development may inhibit their conceptual understanding of divorce, they can still sense that something is wrong. They are most likely familiar with the word divorce from TV or friends at school, and it is highly possible that they associate it with something very bad. Dispelling myths and providing accurate facts will be a first step in helping your under five child make sense of what is happening. As a parent you can first define divorce for yourself and for your family. By being clear about your own feelings and assumptions, you will be better able to help your young child with their own thoughts and perceptions about divorce. Children this young are very sensitive to others actions, facial expressions, and tone of voice and they are still learning to interpret the meaning behind other people’s behavior. This leaves children this age vulnerable to misinterpretation and confusion making it essential for parents to be aware and cautious about how they behave and express themselves when around their young children.

Middle Childhood
The middle school years are hard enough, and when you throw in the wrench of divorce things can become overwhelming. Children this age are able to understand the meaning of divorce and although they may feel devastated, they will probably not express their feelings verbally. At this age kids are prone to blaming themselves and can easily feel like their whole world is falling apart. As a parent it can be helpful to include your child where appropriate. The more information you can provide, the less likely he or she will be to create fantasies and stories that aren’t true. Be aware that middle school aged children tend to hold things in and have a tendency to endure difficult feelings on their own. Keep the conversation open and welcoming so your child can feel safe coming to you with anything he or she is feeling. Middle-schoolers also tend to express their feelings through behavior so it is important for parents to stay attuned to any conduct problems or sudden shifts in the way their children are acting around the time of the divorce.

While adolescents suffer less than preschool aged children at the time of a divorce, they tend to exhibit more negative effects up to 10 years later. On the outside the adolescent’s response to divorce may seem less benign then it really is, and it is easy to assume that because they are older they can more easily handle the news of a divorce. Adolescence is a time of separation and individuation and most teens are rarely home when they don’t have to be. If they have been able to develop according to plan then they have begun to turn toward their peers for comfort and support in an effort to differentiate from their parents. These are all normal aspects of adolescent development, but parents can also be blinded by their adolescent’s rejecting attitude and new found priorities. Adolescents have a deep seeded need to know that their home is a safe-haven. They rely on the consistency and reliability of their home life so they can venture out into the world to explore and learn about life on their own, and divorce can suddenly shatter their expectations. Kids this age will need extra support and reassurance as well as consistency. Don’t let them slip through the cracks by presuming that they don’t need you. They need you more than ever so they can feel reassured and safe.

While divorce can be disruptive and challenging for everyone in the family, it is more difficult for children because they are still cognitively and emotionally developing. When parents can be mindful of the fact that every child will have a unique experience and response to divorce, they will be better able to ease the transition and to provide an environment that promotes healing and long-term well being.

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