When parents split up, the family changes – and these changes can be very painful for the children. Most parents wonder what the break-up will do to their children, asking themselves hard questions such as:
- Will the children understand what’s going on?
- How will they react to each parent as the family changes?
- Will they be OK with a new step-parent?
- Will they be OK if there are step-siblings?
- Will their grades in school suffer?
- Will they draw away from their friends?
- Will they suffer some emotional harm forever? Does the children’s age make a difference?
- Is it different for boys than for girls?
For most divorcing parents, the important thing is that their children survive the process relatively unscathed. They want their children to grow up to be healthy adults – and many children do, of course. Some are even better off in many ways; for some children, a break-up is better than staying in an unhappy family. A separation can also be better than being in a high-conflict home where parents argue constantly.
Here are the typical effects of divorce on children – from preschoolers to pre-adolescents – as well as some advice on how parents can help their children through the divorce process.
The Effects of Divorce on Preschoolers
Preschoolers most often react to their parents’ break-up with fear and guilt. They’re confused: young children are not able to understand what is going on and why. They think that if Dad can leave their life, Mom can too. They may think that if parents can stop loving each other, they can also stop loving them. Young children often worry about who will take care of them, if there will be enough food or money, where they’ll live, and so on. There really is no age where children are not upset by stress in a bad relationship.
Parents will often see children go back to early behaviors: for example, the child may want a security blanket again, or they may have problems using the toilet. There may be an increase in wanting to masturbate. They may cry, cling, or disobey. They may have night fears or fears at separation. Children may imagine strange things about why one parent is gone. Children often think they caused the break-up; they may think Dad or Mom would not have gone if they had behaved better. If a parent is very upset, a child may hide his own feelings so he won’t upset the parent.
How to Help Preschoolers through Your Divorce
Young children need to be told clearly and often that their parents will take care of them, and that both Mom and Dad still love them. They need to be told that they are still a family, no matter where each family member lives. Parents need to explain in a simple way why the break-up happened; this will help the children know that the problems are between Mom and Dad and that the break-up is not their fault. They need a chance to talk about their fears. Each parent should frequently set aside time to talk to the preschoolers about how they feel. Both parents should spend lots of time with their children.
Parents should also avoid conﬂict in front of the children. Young children will listen to their parents’ arguing and may think they are to blame. When violence has occurred, the safety of the children must be insured; a violent parent can help repair the harm by setting a good example of anger control. Showing respect for the other parent can undo the damage to children who have seen violence.
Children need to spend good one-on-one time with each parent. Most of them are very sad not to be with the absent parent more – for children under three, one week of being away is too long. Their sense of time is much shorter than that of older children.
The Effects of Divorce on Young Children (ages 6–8)
Children aged six to eight years old respond most often with grief. They express their grief through crying and sobbing; this happens with boys more than with girls. They also feel a deep yearning for the absent parent. The children will miss that parent intensely, even if their relationship with the parent was not good before the break-up. Since they don’t see the absent parent often, they usually won’t express the anger they feel toward him or her. They will express their anger toward the custodial parent, and they may blame him/her for the absence of the other parent. When contact with the absent parent is reduced, children at this age often believe that parent has stopped loving them. This reaction causes emotional trauma.
Young children often hope Mom and Dad will get back together. They may feel that it is their job to take care of and comfort their parents, and many will try to solve the problems between their parents. It is not healthy for young children to reverse roles with their parents.
Research tells us that children are affected when they see their parents ﬁghting. It affects their ideas about how people solve problems with each other. Children do not get used to the ﬁghting – instead, the ﬁghting wears them down. Physical ﬁghting is especially damaging: children will copy their parents and hit other children.
When parents try to get the child to take sides, there can be a “tug of war” on the emotions of a child. Some parents may tell their children that the other parent is bad, or that the other parent caused the problems. Each parent may really believe this simple view. Children caught in the middle are the most likely to lose this war.
How to Help Young Children through Your Divorce
All children need protection from the hurts and anger of parents. They should not feel pressure to take sides, so never criticize the other parent in front of the children. They need to know that both parents still love them. They will be taken care of even if Mom and Dad do not live together. Children must be able to spend time with the absent parent. They need to know it is okay to love that parent. Young children are not sure their parents still love them – so they need more love and support now.
The Effects of Divorce on Preteens (ages 9–12)
The response of children aged nine to twelve years old to a break-up is not the same as younger children. This age group is more advanced in their thinking, and they are able to see many points of view in the matter. Most of these children can understand some of the reasons for the break-up. They will seriously and bravely try to make the best of it.
These children will often hide the distress they are feeling. They may say they see their nonresident parent enough – when in fact they miss him or her terribly. They may be afraid to ask for more time with their other parent because they know this will upset the resident parent.
About 25% of children at this age will take sides in the parents’ battle, most often siding with the mother. Although they are better able than their younger brothers and sisters to see both sides, they still tend to see things in black-and-white terms. This results in a need to label one parent as “the good guy” and the other parent as the “villain.”
Children at this age are likely to feel intense anger, and unlike their younger siblings, they are very aware of their anger. Anger is normal in the break-up of a family. A badly shaken sense of self is also common at this age. Children may have many health complaints or problems, including infections, headaches, stomachaches, asthma, etc. The stress the children are going through aggravates these problems. Doctors report that children from split homes come to their ofﬁces far more often than other children.
Family break-ups can also lead to problems with peers. Children may not have as many friends as before, and they may fear that their peers will reject them. These children are more likely to become friends with other “rejected” classmates. These new friends may have emotional or behavioral problems, which can lead to more serious problems: failing school, breaking laws, or engaging in risky sex, drug, or alcohol abuse.
Preteens have developed new thinking skills, which allow them to understand cause-and-effect relationships, but they still lack a larger view of how things work. They are likely to feel very let down, and they may “act out” by trying to hurt one or both of their parents using the power they think they have. They might say mean or unkind things, or accuse parents of changing or having moral lapses. They may refuse to spend time with the parent they now see as guilty.
Parents should not accept this: in a gentle way, make your preteens aware that you expect them to be civil and polite to both parents. Concrete examples may help. Remind them that even though Aunt Mary is bossy or Grandma is strict, the children must still go on family visits, during which they are expected to be polite. And even though they may not like a certain teacher, they must still show respect to him/her.
They can be given some control over minor aspects of their time with the other parent. For example, they could choose to take along a friend or suggest activities. Or, they could choose to call the other parent now and then, etc.
How to Help Preteens through Your Divorce
Children at this age need to be able to talk to each parent about the break-up and about life after the break-up – to express their concerns, fears, and complaints. And they can understand a little about how the parents feel. It is okay to say that Mom and Dad do not agree about
Parents should offer love and support to their preteens, and they need to acknowledge their children’s anger. Often, the children yearn for the parents to get back together. If this is not going to happen (and it usually isn’t), children should be told clearly and with no doubt; creating false hope does not help the children.
Parents must control their anger towards each other. If their anger becomes violent, parents must disengage, and they should avoid contact until they learn control. Parents should minimize conﬂict in front of their children – this is very important if the conﬂict is unresolved or is spiteful. Children learn social skills by watching conﬂicts get resolved; if parents can negotiate and compromise, they model good social skills. This can lessen the effect of the conﬂict.
Parents must allow the children to love the other parent. Encourage children to call or write letters, and help the children give the other parent gifts on special days (birthdays, Christmas, Father’s Day, etc.).
Say good things about the other parent in front of the children: praise your ex’s good qualities. In spite of your anger and sadness, at one time you saw enough good qualities to want to marry or move in with this person; surely some of those qualities are still there!
Avoid making children “choose sides.” Most parents are not aware how often they do this, and many truly believe they never do this. Trying to get children to side with you damages their relationship with the other parent, which leads to more stress and causes anger toward both parents.
This article has been adapted with permission from What About the Children? A Simple Guide For Divorced/Separated And Divorcing Parents (CDE, eighth edition, 2011) by Donald A. Gordon (Ph.D.) and Jack Arbuthnot (Ph.D.). Based in Athens, OH, the Center for Divorce Education (CDE) is a non-proﬁt corporation founded in 1987 by a consortium of attorneys and psychologists. The CDE is dedicated to advocating for children and helping parents to minimize the harmful effects that divorce and separation has on children. More information and skills to improve relationships with the co-parent and children is available at: online.divorce-education.com