No matter what age children are when their parents divorce, it is a major, life-altering experience. This is true for children who live at home as well as for adult children. The first year after a divorce is the most crucial, regardless of age, as all involved—adults and children—are working at putting together a different life than the one they had been living up until that point. It is important to address the emotional adjustment of everyone. This often means the adults have to be very careful about taking care of themselves in order to be able to take care of their children. It is analogous to putting the oxygen mask on your face before putting it on your child’s in an airplane.
However, we also know that in addition to many other factors, one of the variables is the developmental stage children are in at the time of the divorce. In other words, how old they are.
There is a belief that children who are preverbal will not be affected by conversations happening in their earshot. Parents have often wanted to bring their infants to sessions, albeit because it is either difficult or expensive to find child care. While babies may not be able to understand the words that are being spoken, they do have the ability to feel the tension that exists around them, either because one parent is distraught or because both parents are arguing with each other. Bringing them to a meeting where both of these possibilities exist may be detrimental to a child’s well-being. Babies have been known to become irritable and more clingy when in this type of environment, whether it is in a professional’s office or at home.
What can help: To help an infant, consistency in routine (eating and sleeping schedules) and familiar people and places are a soothing experience. Having transitional objects, such as a toy or blanket, to take from one place to another is also helpful. Children often require extra holding time, as the touch of a parent is highly comforting. Most important, though, is keeping the child away from the experience of tension.
Because exposure to media is so prevalent in our culture, it is unlikely that even a toddler has not been exposed to the idea of divorce through television or other sources. He or she may also have heard the word divorce at daycare or from a friend. It is difficult to shield children from all the things we wish they did not have to know about. At this stage of development, they can have the belief that they cause what goes on around them and might worry that the big change in their lives is because they weren’t good, made their parents fight, or some other sense that it is their fault. They may also be having to understand for the first time that love can change or stop. They may worry that either or both parents can stop loving them. Children at this age have been known to regress to earlier stages of development and may start sucking their thumbs again or go back to diapers if they have been toilet trained. Sometimes they become afraid to go to sleep by themselves or fall asleep at all.
What can help: As with infants, consistency in routine is a great comfort. At this stage, children often want to verbalize their feelings and might need help doing so. Parents are encouraged to talk with their children at a level they are capable of understanding and to read age-appropriate books with them about divorce. Most important is to impress upon your child that the divorce is not their responsibility.
As they get older, children understand more words, but they do not necessarily understand more of the meaning behind the words. Children at this stage can be very bossy, telling their parents what to do, especially that they should stay together. They want very much to control their environment so they do not have to feel the anxiety of their major support system being in transition. This is true even if they want their parents to stop fighting and causing them that type of stress. They also, as with toddlers, have the belief that they are the ones who make things happen, and could feel the responsibility and guilt of having caused this. Children may become caretakers of a distraught parent and “grow up” faster than is appropriate. They may be afraid to talk about their feelings, especially anger as they may believe this is what caused the divorce in the first place. At this stage, it is not always easy to know fact from fantasy. If something can be imagined—and children at this age often have very active imaginations—they can believe they made it happen. They often want to know about the parent who is moving out, if they are going away or will continue to see them, for fear of losing that attachment.
What can help: Children tend to follow the leads of their parents. If they see that their parents are handling the divorce in a positive way, they will often reflect this mood in how they feel about what is going on around them. Again, age-appropriate books designed to help them express their thoughts and feelings are helpful. It is important to not give your child information that is not only beyond their ability to understand but also too much information about what they are capable of understanding. Help your children by creating a visual schedule so they will learn when they will be seeing or staying with the parent who no longer lives in the house. If you see your child beginning to take on caretaking roles, such as hugging you when you are upset, help him or her to know that you are OK.
Pay attention to your child’s age and what he or she is capable of. Look for any signs that he or she is not coping well, and address it by either creating a less stressful environment, helping your child to understand what is happening age-appropriately, and/or seeking help from a professional who is expert in the area of children and divorce.
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