Going through a divorce, while challenging and upsetting for adults, can be equally as confusing and stressful for children of all ages. Typical responses in the early stages of divorce include, sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, confusion, and loyalty conflicts.
How parents handle the conflict between one another, and their ability to minimize the children’s exposure to the conflict, significantly decrease the negative effects of divorce on children. Also, there are other factors which mitigate the negative effect of divorce on children, and which can have a positive impact on children’s adjustment to divorce.
- Competent parenting
- Reduced fighting and encapsulated conflict between the parents
- Parallel or cooperative co-parenting arrangements
- Regular access and communication with both parents
- Limited family transitions
- Maintaining close relationships between children and both parents
- Allowing children to have a voice in individualized parenting plans
While this seems like a tall order at times, with the assistance of a family therapist, you can successfully manage and thrive with the changes. While divorce may be challenging and overwhelming at times, you can create new family traditions. With these new norms, you can create a more positive relationship with your child and maximize your time together.
Understanding your child’s needs and feelings, related to their development, can help you better support your child and help them successfully adjust and navigate the many changes in their lives.
- Infants (0-2 years):
Children are dependent on parents for meeting all their needs and this is the period where attachments form with primary caregivers.
Children’s Feelings and Signs of Distress: Toddlers may exhibit more irritability, such as crying and fussing. You may notice changes in sleep patterns, napping and other routines. There may be an increase in nervousness and fearfulness, especially if a new adult moves in.
What parents can do? Keep normal schedules and routines. Reassure infants of your continued presence with physical affection and loving words. Do not make major changes to routines, sleep situations or caregivers, and gradually introduce any new adult friends.
- Toddlers (2-5 years):
Developing more independence and verbal skills to express needs and feelings.
Children’s Feelings and Signs of Distress: Toddlers may have difficulty separating from their parents, and may experience loss of contact with one parent as abandonment. Toddlers may be anxious about their needs being met or have the sense that they are responsible for the separation. You may see regressed behavior, such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking and they may express anger towards one or both parents. Older toddlers may experience nightmares and exhibit more anxiety at bedtime, in addition to seeking more physical contact. Tantrums and irritability may increase.
What parents can do: Create a consistent routine and offer physical and verbal reassurances of your love. Try to spend more time with your child when preparing to separate, such as arriving 10-20 minutes earlier when preparing to drop off your child at child care. Parents should allow for some regressed behavior and show compassion for their distress, remembering the newly mastered skills will return. Allow frequent contact with both parents.
- Preschool and Elementary Years ( 5-8):
Preschoolers recognize that one parent no longer lives with them anymore. Elementary school children begin to understand that divorce means their parents will no longer be married and live together. They are also focused on developing peer relationships and moral development progresses.
Children’s Feelings and Signs of Distress: They may blame themselves for the separation or divorce, and may exhibit signs of sadness and grieving due to the absence of one parent. Children may have fantasies of parental reunification and may worry about changes in their daily lives. You may see anger and aggression toward the parent they “blame.” Behavioral problems and changes in eating or sleeping patterns are not uncommon.
What parents can do: Repeatedly reassure your child that it is not their fault for the divorce. Reassure and repeat often who will be taking care of them and how their needs will be met. Encourage as much time as possible with each parent, and be supportive of the child’s ongoing relationship with the other parent. Provide opportunities to express their feelings and learn coping skills. Create a calendar that the child can easily see and access, to know where they are going every day and with which parent. Give permission to love each parent. Encourage frequent contact with both parents and provide outlets such as extracurricular activities, where your child can detach from parental problems. Gently remind your child that the divorce is final and that the parents will not get back together again.
- Preteen Years (9-12):
Children during the preteen years understand what divorce means but may have a hard time accepting the reality of the changes it brings to the family. Their focus is on fitting in with peers and they may still blame themselves for the divorce.
Children’s Feelings and Signs of Distress: Parents may hear more physical complaints from their children and they may withdraw from longtime friends and favorite activities. During this age period, children are more likely to ally with a parent or be alienated from one parent. They may make one parent all good and the other bad and are more likely to take sides and blame one parent. Feelings of abandonment may surface.
What parents can do: Parents can give permission for their child to love both parents and provide opportunities to express their feelings. Maintain open lines of communication and reassurance of your love and continued involvement. As much as possible, both parents need to stay involved in your child’s life, such as their friends, school progress, and extracurricular activities. Encourage expression of both positive and negative feelings, and discuss ways to cope with change.
- Teen Years ( 13-18):
Children are solidifying their identity and their sense of self in relation to society.
Children’s Feelings and Signs of Distress: Teens may start to worry about adult matters, such as the family’s financial stability. They may start to feel obligated to take on more adult responsibility, such as with younger siblings. They may exhibit intense anger and may act out in uncharacteristic ways, exhibiting high-risk behavior ( drug or alcohol use). Your teen may be confused about their own beliefs concerning love, marriage, and family. They may worry about future relationships. There is a sense of growing up too soon. Teens may place peer needs above family and may not want to visit one parent. There may be a sense of embarrassment about the divorce and de-idealizing of one or both parents.
What parents can do: Provide consistent limits balanced with increased freedom and choices. Allow your child to have input about visitation but not be burdened by having to decide parenting time arrangements or putting them in the position of telling one parent what they want for visitation. Avoid using teenage children as confidants and plan time for yourself with adult friends and family members. Be understanding of their need to spend time with friends and take a break from parental conflict and discussions of the divorce. Give children advance notice of who is attending their events, such as sporting events, and be sensitive to their input, especially if you plan to take a new partner. Honor family rituals and routines as much as possible, such as movie nights and traditional holiday events. Encourage contact with each parent and make both homes, comfortable and familiar for the teen. Teens also need sensitivity and flexibility on both parents part.
Divorces present challenges for families but with the support of a family therapist, the challenges can become more manageable. Learn some simple techniques to make it easier for you and your family to cope through this challenging time. Please feel free to call me for a consultation about your family.