Are you a parent who is preparing for a divorce or separation? You may have a lot of questions about the effects that the end of your relationship will have on your children. Any worries you have are well-founded. Divorce can be difficult for kids. According to research cited by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), research on divorce and children has found that it is associated with “an increased risk for child and adolescent adjustment problems, including academic difficulties, disruptive behaviors, and depressed mood.”
There is good news, though: There are proactive steps that you can take as a parent to make your divorce as smooth, easy, and stress-free as possible for your child. In the long term, getting out of a bad marriage can actually be better for both you and your kids—but you need to have the right structure in place. How kids process divorce depends on many different factors, including their age. You need to be ready to have age-appropriate conversations with your kids. Here is an age-by-age breakdown of the effects that a divorce can have on children.
The Effects of Divorce on Children
Infants and Toddlers (0 to 4)
During a divorce, infants and toddlers may struggle to understand the basic changes in their environment. Emotional and behavioral disruptions are relatively common. Even an infant may cry more frequently if a parent is not around, despite being too young to understand or express their frustration. To minimize the impact, consider these tips:
- Maintain Routines: Consistency in daily schedules provides security and comfort.
- Provide Physical Comfort: Hugs and cuddles can reassure them of your love and presence.
- Limit Conflict Exposure: Keep arguments and stressful situations away from your child.
- Foster Attachment: Ensure both parents have ample bonding time with the child.
Young Children (5 to 9)
Compared to infants and toddlers, young children are far more aware of their surroundings. During this age range, children will generally have an understanding that their parents are going through problems. Kids who are 8 and 9 will often even have a solid grasp of what a divorce is and what it means for their future. A common issue is that young children may struggle with feelings of guilt or blame. To support them, try these strategies:
- Encourage Communication: Allow them to express their feelings without fear of judgment.
- Address Misconceptions: Explain that they are not responsible for the divorce.
- Maintain Routines: Consistency in daily schedules and activities offers stability.
- Foster Healthy Co-Parenting: Encourage a positive relationship with both parents.
- Provide Reassurance: Remind them that both parents will always love them.
Early Adolescence (10 to 13)
For parents, dealing with a child who is between 10 and 13 can be especially challenging. The reason is that early adolescents almost always have a strong intellectual understanding of divorce. Most of them also have a general understanding of the specific issues that their parents are struggling with. However, their emotional control is simply not yet developed. Early adolescents frequently experience emotional turmoil during a divorce. Here is how you can help:
- Encouraging Expression: Allow them to express their feelings and validate their emotions. With children of this age, parents should be prepared for probing and even seemingly-invasive questions.
- Providing Stability: Maintain routines, friendships, and extracurricular activities.
- Age-Appropriate Reassurance: Emphasize that the divorce is not their fault and both parents will continue to love them. Though, you should be ready for them to roll their eyes. Unlike young children, they may not accept reassurance as easily
- Seeking Professional Help: If necessary, consult a therapist or counselor for additional support. Early adolescents are often strong candidates for professional help from a family therapist. They may even be able to see a therapist without either parent in the room.
Teenagers (14 to 18)
Teenagers are still not fully developed, but they are getting there. How they handle and process the divorce is especially situation-specific. It is not uncommon for teenagers to be the most accepting of a divorce. They may understand that it is the right path forward. At the same time, it is also not uncommon for teenagers to be highly resistant. They could even openly and hostilely blame one parent over the other. Here are some strategies to help divorcing parents with teenagers:
- Encourage Open Communication: Promote honest conversations about their feelings, thoughts, and concerns.
- Try to Respect their Autonomy: Allow them to have a say in decisions that directly affect them.
- Avoid Parental Conflict: Keep disagreements out of their presence to reduce emotional distress.
- Provide Resources: Share books, articles, or support groups specifically aimed at helping teens cope with divorce.
- Focus on Logistics and Practical Issues: Teenagers are often concerned with how a divorce will impact the school, their friends, and their life on a day-to-day basis.
Divorce is Complicated for Children: Age-Appropriate Explanations are a Must
Divorce is a complex and emotional experience for children of all ages. To help them navigate this transition, it’s essential to provide age-appropriate explanations that address their unique concerns and developmental needs. Tailoring your approach ensures they feel heard, understood, and supported. Younger children need simple, concrete explanations, focusing on their immediate needs and reinforcing parental love. As children grow older, they require more detailed information and reassurance, allowing them to express their emotions and understand the situation. By fostering open communication, validating their feelings, and promoting healthy coping strategies, parents can help their children adapt to life after divorce.
Of course, it is also important to emphasize that not every child is the same. While explanations of a divorce should always be age-appropriate, that is not sufficient. You also need to tailor your explanation and conversation to your particular child. Some parents may have an introverted, introspective, and sensitive child who is unlikely to ask many questions or openly state their feelings. Other parents may have a child who is extremely expressive and may openly challenge a parent. You should always develop an age-appropriate divorce explanation that is best suited for the needs of your particular child.