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Divorce: Effects on Children

Children respond to divorce differently depending on their age. Knowing how your child is likely to respond will help you understand better how to help them cope.

Infant/Toddler (0 to 3 Years)

Children at this age understand little, if anything, about the divorce itself. They are, however, aware if people in the family are upset.

To help your little one cope:

  • Get help and support for yourself. This makes it easier for you to respond to your young child's needs.
  • Cuddle and care for your baby warmly and consistently. The parent-infant relationship continues to be central to your child's sense of security and independence.
  • Try to keep the home environment as stable and predictable as possible. For example, if you need day care, try to arrange something in your home.

Preschool Child (3 to 6 Years)

Preschoolers tend to be very self-centered with a strict sense of right and wrong. Therefore, when bad things happen, they usually blame themselves by assuming they misbehaved. Children this age often feel rejected when one parent moves out. The child may fear that they too will have to move out.

Children are likely to deny reality and wish intensely for parents to get back together. In addition, they commonly go back to baby behaviors such as thumbsucking, bedwetting, temper tantrums, or clinging to a blanket. They may be scared of the dark or separation from the parent.

Here are some suggestions that might help your preschooler cope:

  • Explain what is happening over and over again.

    Children this age are confused easily. Keep it simple. Explain where your child will live, with whom, and where the departing parent will live.

  • Reassure your child constantly.

    Emphasize that your child is not to blame for anything. Explain NOTHING he or she did caused the divorce, but it was Mommy and Daddy who did not get along. Provide extra hugs and kisses and tell your child that you and other adults will always be near to love and protect.

  • Talk to your child's day-care provider about the divorce.

    She will better understand your child's possible regressive behaviors and will likely offer extra support.

School-Age Child

By the time children reach the early school-age years, they no longer cope by denying the reality of divorce. They are keenly aware of pain and sadness, and want parents to get back together.

They tend to view life in black and white, and are likely to blame one parent for the break-up. Boys, especially, mourn the loss of their fathers and express anger at their mothers. Both boys and girls have a hard time accepting any person their parents might decide to date.

Crying, daydreaming, and problems with friends and school are common divorce-related behaviors in children between 6 and 9 years of age.

Children between 9 and 12 years of age usually react to divorce with anger. They are likely to be very critical and resentful of their parents' decision to divorce. Like younger school-age children, they may continue to blame one or both parents, and to ignore or dislike outwardly any person their parents decide to date. They may also resent extra household or child care responsibilities.

Children between 9 and 12 years of age do not like to stand out among their peers and generally feel shamed or embarrassed by the divorce. They tend to have very practical concerns about day-to-day family life. They worry about family finances and whether they are a drain on their parents' resources. They also empathize and worry about how their parents are coping. They may mask their true feelings through a display of bravado or a flurry of activity.

Here are some suggestions that might help your school-age child cope:

  • Discourage the idea that you and your ex-spouse will get back together.

    Avoid dinners, outings, or holiday celebrations with your ex-spouse. Tell children more than once that the divorce is final. Do not give false hopes that you and your ex-spouse will reunite.

  • Make sure your child can easily contact the absent parent.

    Both parents should encourage easy access and frequent communication with the noncustodial parent. This could be by phone, email, text, or Skype.

  • Do not allow your child to manipulate you into buying more possessions.

    School-age children are likely to feel deprived. Although they may intensify requests for playthings or other possessions, do not try to buy your child's affection. Even children of divorce need to be told "No!"

  • Talk to your child's teachers or school counselors about the divorce.

    Teachers will understand changes in your child's behavior and can help prevent problems.

One of the most important things you can do for a child during divorce is to work well with the other parent. You are divorcing each other, not your children. Keep these things is mind when working together:

  • Do not argue in front of your children. Divorce is a hard enough time for children; this only makes it worse.
  • Do not say negative things about the other parent to your child. Find someone else to express your feelings to.
  • Do not force your children to take sides. They love you both and this makes them feel guilty.
  • Do not ask the children to take messages back and forth to the other parent. Try to develop a business like relationship with one another and talk to each other directly.
  • Do not act jealous or upset about the time your children spend with the other parent. It is important for them to spend time with you both.
  • Try to agree on matters regarding your children. Try to have consistent expectations of behavior and rules when they are with each of you. This will make the adjustment from going from one home to another much easier on your child.
  • Communicate with each other about your children and what happened during your time with them when the children are not around. This takes away the chances that the children will get away with something at one parents house and not be held accountable at the others.
  • Take care of yourself and get support if you need it. The better you deal with your feelings, the better your children will be able to deal with theirs.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-02-08
Last reviewed: 2012-07-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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