When parents go through a divorce, the whole family is affected. Children are better able to adapt to this new family situation as long as their parents guide them through the process. Knowing something about the typical, normal reactions of children at a particular age and understanding the patterns of behavior of an individual child can be useful in providing appropriate support. The concerns the child may face differ with age and maturity and require explanations and support methods appropriate to that age and level of understanding.
Because of their great dependence on adult care, preschool children are liable to show fear of abandonment, expressed by crying and clinging when left at school or with a babysitter, a new fear of the dark, wakefulness at night or even fear of hunger. Temporary regression to behaviors appropriate to an earlier, safer time in the child's life may occur as a means of seeking reassurance.
Young children tend to see themselves as the center of their world and the cause of whatever happens in it. They often attribute their parents' separation to some misbehavior of their own and may secretly carry a heavy load of guilt for their presumed responsibility. They may reflect tensions in the family by an increase in aggressive behavior or by a fear of aggression.
Children aged six to eight are a little more independent of their parents' problems, but still have very limited, simple ideas of cause and effect. Their reactions to divorce may include fear of abandonment, sadness and sense of loss, anger and attempts to bring the parents back together. Anger is more likely to be directed at the custodial parent than at the departed parent, because they may feel the parent they are living with has the power to make it all better again.
Older children, aged nine to twelve, are more able to withstand stress without regressing to earlier behavior patterns. Anger may be expressed more directly by blaming the parent they feel is responsible for the divorce. Some may become overly stern and righteous, while others may indulge in petty stealing and lying. Both types of behavior express their feelings about the importance of rules and their need for consistency and predictability.
Older children are also beginning to form their self-image and may see their parents' personalities reflected in their own. The risk in allowing themselves to feel very close to one parent and express anger against the other is that they are likely to feel one part of themselves is "good" and another part "bad."
Adolescents, whose developmental task is to establish their separate identities and move toward leaving home, often feel that the tables have been turned on them -- that the parents are leaving them -- when divorce occurs. They may feel that they are losing a stable family before they are ready to stand on their own, or that they are being forced to take on adult responsibilities too soon.
Like other age groups, adolescents often react with anger to the divorce, but they may also have financial worries and other anxieties younger children may not have. Their awareness of the future may lead them to worry about who will pay for college, whether they will be able to have satisfying sexual lives, or if they will ever be able to make long-term commitments to others. Many adolescents seem to assume failure for themselves unless reassured otherwise.
Helping a child through the process of divorce means paying close attention to the worries, fears and needs of each individual child. But there are some supportive responses applicable to all ages.
Source: Suzanne West, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, New York State College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 39
Last updated July 10, 2020