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Divorce: The 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:

  1. Explain what is happening over and over again.

    Children this age are confused easily. In simple terms, explain where your child will live, with whom, and where the departing parent will live.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Younger School-Age Child (6 to 9 Years)

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 this age.

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

  1. 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.

  2. Make sure your child has the phone number of the absent parent.

    Both parents should encourage easy access and frequent conversations with the noncustodial parent.

  3. 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!"

  4. 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.

Older School-Age Child (9 to 12 Years)

Children this age usually react to divorce with anger. Children 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 in this age range 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:

  1. 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.

  2. Make sure your child has the phone number of the absent parent.

    Both parents should encourage easy access and frequent conversations with the noncustodial parent.

  3. 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 toys or other possessions, do not try to buy your child's affection. Even children of divorce need to be told "No!"

  4. 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.

Developed by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-10-05
Last reviewed: 2006-09-11
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.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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