What We Know about How Young Children Experience Divorce

parents bicker while child watchesNo 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.

Infancy

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.

Toddlers

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.

Preschool Children

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.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD, therapist in San Ramon, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Marla T

    Marla T

    May 21st, 2014 at 8:14 AM

    I think that as adults we think that children do not always understand what is going on in a divorce situation. What I would like to say is that sure, maybe they don’t understand it on the same level that we as adults do, but they know when something is disrupting their lives and their homes even before they are old enough or know exactly how to express those feelings.
    If you are going through a divorce it is so important that you try to keep your kids’ lives as consistent as possible. They have done nothing to deserve this and they shouldn’t have to be the ones who are hurting because we can np longer find a way to live with each other.

  • sean

    sean

    May 21st, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    no matter how well you think that you are hiding it, little eyes and little ears still see and hear everything :(

  • Gabriel

    Gabriel

    May 22nd, 2014 at 3:31 AM

    I suppose that there is no great time to get a divorce unless you just go ahead and do it before there are children to think about. But if it doesn’t happen that way, then at least be an adult and think about the fact that there are other people (the kids) who you need to have some consideration for. There are sometimes these issues that are very powerful and the adults forget that there are many other lives being affected by their actions. Take a moment to think about the fact that a lot of people are going to be hurt and that it is still your responsibility as a parent, no matter what you are going through, to look at how this impacts the children and determine what will cause them the least amount of harm.

  • julia y

    julia y

    May 23rd, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    If the kids are old enough then I think that it is important to talk to them about what is going on and ask them how they are feeling. Give them the chance to share with you what they are thinking, what they see, and how they think that this impacts them.

    Sometimes what they see and what they feel could be totally different from what you are experiencing but it is always good to hear it from them so that you can addresss their concerns,

    Don’t ignore them because they have thoughts and feelings too that are just as important as yours.

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    May 23rd, 2014 at 4:26 PM

    Very useful article, which I’m sure I’ll share with both neurofeedback and psychotherapy clients who are going through a divorce and who have children.

    I only work with adults but I see in them the consequences of the ages they were when their parents first separated – the adult versions of what they internalized at the time.

  • Sam

    Sam

    May 24th, 2014 at 6:19 AM

    my guess is that they experience it just like the rest of us do, but with maybe more pain because they don’t have the capacity to truly understand what is going on

  • Clarissa

    Clarissa

    May 26th, 2014 at 5:01 AM

    My own parents divorced when I was pretty young, maybe 7 or something, and I never remember it having any kind of real impact on me until I was older, like a teenager. There were times that I was so resentful of having to be shuttled back and forth every weekend or alternating holidays or whatever the visitation schedule was set up to be, and I never felt like I had any say so or that anyone even asked how I felt about any of that. As an adolescent that was really hard and I think that more parents should talk to their kids who are around this age about what they feel and how they would like to set things up. That doesn’t mean that the final decision has to be theirs but it would be nice to show then that you care enough about what they think and feel to at least ask for their opinion.

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