How Do Children React to Divorce? How Should a Parent Respond? An Outline Based on Maturity

Studies concerned with the effects of divorce on children are often inconsistent, conflicting, and confusing. Findings range from reports that show that children in divorced families are significantly more androgynous, flexible, and mature than children in traditional families, to findings that show detrimental life-long effects, combined with lower educational attainment, low probability of marriage and high probability of divorce in children of divorced parents.

It is simplistic and inaccurate to think of divorce as having uniform consequences for all children. While we may not be able to predict the long term effects of divorce on children, in the short term parents should be prepared for strong reactions. Grief, guilt, sadness, resentment, hostility, self-pity, frustration, confusion, a rejection of reality, and/or a fear of the future are all normal for children in families undergoing divorce.

Divorce fills children with questions that they are afraid to ask. A child may be so uncomfortable with the feelings that the idea of divorce evokes that it may take a long time before s/he can discuss them. Any unusual or out of the ordinary behavior may be your child’s way of acting out these feelings, giving you clues and an opening for discussion.

Children and adults will often go through the stages of loss and grief in response to divorce. These stages include Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. But often this is not a linear process – so be prepared for what seems like backward motion. Your child’s response to the divorce will be influenced by his developmental maturity and your reactions to what is going on.  The following offers some guideline as to what you can expect at various life stages and how you can ease the transition for your child.

Infant to Three Years.  While your child may not understand what is going on s/he will be able to sense anger and tension.  Expect these possible reactions:

  1. Fear upon separation from the primary caregiver
  2. Confusion if the regular routine is interrupted
  3. Regression or other changes in eating, sleeping, and toilet habits
  4. Increased crying, temper tantrums, sulkiness, hitting, irritability and withdrawal

Parent’s Tasks:

  1. Arrange time with each parent in familiar as well as new surroundings with familiar objects
  2. Establish a routine that includes time spent eating and sleeping with each parent
  3. Provide consistency
  4. Ensure adult time for each parent

Preschool – Ages 3 to 6.  Expect these possible reactions:

  1. Regressive behaviors – thumb-sucking, bed-wetting
  2. Clinging, whining, and fear of being abandoned
  3. Anxiety, bewilderment, sadness, neediness
  4. Lack of interest in usual play activities
  5. Creation of fantasy stories
  6. Aggressive behavior exhibited in play and/or towards parents
  7. Self blame – children in this age group frequently think the world revolves around them

Parent’s Tasks:

  1. Restore the child’s confidence in himself and his world
  2. Use your child’s frame of reference for time. (You will come back after Sesame Street.)
  3. Provide consistency
  4. Give her time and attention
  5. Allow readjustment time after time spent with the other parent

Ages 6 to 10.  Expect these possible reactions:

  1. Sadness, hopelessness, crying
  2. Fear of being abandoned and being left without a family
  3. Feeling deprived
  4. Intense yearning for the absent parent
  5. Wishing and fantasizing that the parents will reconcile
  6. Loyalty conflicts between the parents
  7. Anger towards parents
  8. Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  9. A lack of interest, poor concentration, problems with impulse control
  10. Fears of going to school
  11. Symptoms of physical illness

Parent’s Tasks

  1. Provide reassurance that she is loved and will be cared for
  2. Give him time and attention
  3. Avoid confiding in or burdening her with adult concerns such as child support
  4. Encourage connection with both parents and avoid any impression that the child should take sides
  5. Allow readjustment time after time spent with the other parent

Pre-teens and Adolescents.  Expect these possible reactions: 

  1. Intense anger, often directed at the parent he think wants the divorce
  2. Identification with, and/or an attempt to become the companion of the parent she thinks is the victim
  3. Shaken sense of identity
  4. Symptoms of physical illness
  5. School or peer difficulties
  6. Feeling disappointed in her parents
  7. Feeling disillusioned with relationships
  8. Diminished self-esteem
  9. Shoplifting, drug use, school failure and absenteeism, disruptive behavior
  10. Threatening suicide
  11. Taking on new responsibilities in order to save the parent’s marriage
  12. Anguish and a profound sense of loss
  13. Depression, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems and fatigue
  14. Moral judgment towards parents; a belief that the parents are selfish and insensitive
  15. Loyalty conflicts often resulting in distancing from both parents
  16. Preoccupation with his future
  17. Feeling overwhelmed, particularly if one parent is relying on her for emotional support
  18. Pseudo-maturity and sexual activity
  19. Intensification of the normal risk-taking and rebellion of adolescence
  20. Worry about being loved and loveable

Parent’s Tasks:

  1. Restore the child’s belief in a moral and stable world
  2. Encourage the child to love both parents
  3. Keep parental disputes private, out of the child’s sight and hearing
  4. Balance responsibilities with a lot of play and extracurricular activities
  5. Exhibit appropriate sexual behaviors. A parent’s new sexual identity will trigger uncomfortable feelings for the child
  6. Provide support, encouragement, and a forum for self expression

College Age.  Expect these possible reactions: 

  1. A sense of relief
  2. Feelings of being torn
  3. Uncertainty and fear about continued or future education
  4. Yearning for an intact family
  5. Difficulty determining how to confide in one parent or the other
  6. Apprehension about repeating the pattern of an unsuccessful marriage

Parent’s Goals

  1. Provide a safe and inviting place to come home to
  2. Allow her to vent
  3. Be specific about financial arrangements for college
  4. Encourage contact with both parents
  5. Keep clear parent-child boundaries – don’t share more then they need to know
  6. Assure him that you will handle holidays, celebrations and special events
  7. Be open to discussing her fears about marriage and assure her that she can be successful
  8. Maintain and/or create family rituals around special occasions