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Divorce: Effects on Children

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KEY POINTS

  • Children respond to divorce differently depending on their age. For infants and toddlers, it helps to keep routines as normal as you can and give your child extra love and attention. For preschoolers, give your child simple explanations and reassure your child often. For school-age children, be prepared to handle your child’s anger, blaming, shame, and worrying.
  • One of the most important things you can do for your child during divorce is to work well with the other parent. Also, take care of yourself and get support if you need it. The better you deal with your feelings, the better your child will be able to deal with theirs.

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Children respond to divorce differently depending on their age. Knowing how your child is likely to respond will help you better understand 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.
  • Provide extra hugs, kisses, and words of encouragement. Spend extra time with your child. Even if you are focused on a life change, your young child needs lots of love and attention.
  • Try to keep routines as normal as you can. For example, try not to change day care, or move your child from a crib to a big bed during the time that one parent moves out.
  • Expect your child to regress and be patient. Your child may be clingier or start wetting their pants again after being potty trained.

Preschool Child (3 to 6 Years)

Preschoolers tend to be very self-centered with a strict sense of right and wrong. When bad things happen, your child may think they are being punished or blame themselves. Your child may feel rejected when one parent moves out. Your child may fear that they too will have to move out.

Your child may deny what is happening and believe that parents will get back together. It is common for children to go back to baby behaviors such as thumb sucking, bedwetting, temper tantrums, or clinging to a blanket. Your child may again fear the dark or separation from the parent.

Here are some suggestions that might help your preschooler cope:

  • Explain what is happening repeatedly. Keep it simple. Explain where your child will live, with whom, and where the other parent will live.
  • Read books with your child about families and divorce. Reading about a child whose parents get divorced helps your child understand what may happen. Books can also help your child with fears or feelings. Ask what your child thinks about what happens in the story.
  • Reassure your child constantly. Emphasize that your child is not to blame for anything. Explain that your child did not cause the divorce and that mommy and daddy need to live in different houses. Spend more time with your child. Give extra hugs and tell your child that they will always be loved and protected.
  • Tell teachers, babysitters, and other people who care for your child about the divorce. They can help watch for problems and support your child.

School-Age Child

By the early school-age years, your child will feel hurt and sad about the divorce and want parents to get back together. Your child may ignore or show dislike of any person that either parent decides to date. Your child may blame one parent for the break-up, such as mourning the loss of the father and expressing anger at the mother.

Children between 6 and 9 years of age often cry, daydream, and have problems with friends and school.

Children between 9 and 12 years of age usually react to divorce with anger. Your child may be very critical of your decision to divorce. Your child may also resent being asked to help take care of younger siblings or help around the house.

Your child may feel ashamed or embarrassed by the divorce. They may worry about family finances or about how both parents are coping. Your child may mask true feelings by pretending to be brave or staying very active.

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. Tell your child 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 video chats.
  • Let your child ask questions and express feelings and concerns. Make sure your child knows that you are listening and that you care. Be patient with their changing emotions and opinions, which can change from day to day.
  • Do not allow your child to make you feel guilty. When your child feels deprived of affection, it’s better to spend more time with your child than to spend money. Explain in words your child can understand why you are getting divorced. Answer your child’s questions honestly but try not to place blame.
  • Talk to your child's teachers or school counselors about the divorce. They can help watch for problems and support your child. Make sure the school knows who to contact for permission for activities or in an emergency.
  • Try to keep routines as normal as you can.
  • Remain positive. Keep a sense of humor and focus on the strengths of all family members. Let your child know things will eventually work out.

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

  • Don’t argue in front of your child. Divorce is a hard time for children. Angry arguments only make it worse.
  • Don’t say negative things about the other parent to your child. Find someone else to express your feelings to.
  • Don’t force your child to take sides. Your child loves you both and trying to take sides makes your child feel guilty.
  • Don’t ask your child to take messages back and forth to the other parent. Try to talk to each other directly and respectfully.
  • Don’t act jealous or upset about the time your child spends with the other parent. It is important for your child to spend time with both of you.
  • Try to agree on one set of behavior and rules for your child, no matter which parent your child is with. This makes going from one home to the other much easier on your child.
  • Take care of yourself and get support if you need it. The better you deal with your feelings, the better your child will be able to deal with theirs.

Your child’s healthcare provider can help you and your child cope with the stress of divorce. If your child has any of these problems on a regular basis, it may be time to see a counselor or therapist:

  • Trouble sleeping or eating
  • Trouble at school or a drop in grades
  • Being very angry or withdrawn much of the time
  • Using drugs or alcohol
  • Withdrawal or disinterest in usual activities
  • Eating disorders or self-injury

Get emergency care if your child has ideas of suicide or harming others or harming himself.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-05-16
Last reviewed: 2019-05-16
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.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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