Some parents wait until after their children reach a certain age to divorce. But does your child’s age determine how much the divorce will impact them?
Though your child’s age is one of the things to consider when divorcing with kids, there isn’t a particular age at which divorce is most troubling. From newborn babies to adults, children of any age may feel emotional turmoil from their parent’s divorce. Yet certain age groups react more strongly than others.
At What Age Are Children Most Impacted by Divorce?
Knowing your child’s potential reactions could help you choose the right visitation schedule and come up with a plan to help your child cope with the divorce.
Babies (0 to 18 months)
Babies can’t understand what is happening, but they can feel the tension. As a result, newborns might become irritable, clingy, and have developmental delays. Infants will need physical comfort, consistency, routine and soothing items (e.g., teddy bears) to cope with the divorce.
Toddlers (18 months to 3 years old)
Toddlers will notice how the divorce changes the living situation. They usually react emotionally, with temper tantrums, neediness, and trouble sleeping alone.
They’ll be curious to know whether things will ever go “back to normal.” Make it clear that you won’t be getting back together but they’ll still be able to see both of you. Something simple like, “Mommy is moving to a different house, but you’ll be able to visit her,” could help provide reassurance that the parent isn’t abandoning them.
Preschoolers & young children (3 to 5 years old)
Young children like to be in control and may struggle with not having a say in whether their parents separate. They often have trouble expressing their emotions. The pent-up tension can lead to tantrums, bad behavior and stress-induced nightmares.
Try to get your child to speak up about what they’re feeling. It helps to talk while doing other activities like art projects, cooking or playing catch. Tell them about your separation after the parent who’s leaving home has found another place to live. That way your child can see they’ll still be able to visit the parent and have their own space.
School-aged kids (5 to 13 years old)
Children in this age group might think they can save their parents’ marriage. They may become stressed out and, as a result, have stomach aches and headaches. School-aged kids also may exhibit behavioral issues (e.g., failing grades, bed-wetting).
At this age, your child is old enough to read age-appropriate books about divorce that could teach them coping strategies. If they take the news hard, consider finding a child or family therapist for them to speak to.
Teenagers (13 to 18 years)
Teenagers can understand what’s happening. They might get angry and feel like you didn’t think of them when deciding to divorce. Teenagers tend to become distant, engage in risky behavior (e.g., drug use), struggle in school, and show signs of depression and anxiety.
Patience and understanding are key to helping your child deal with the divorce. Designate time to talk with them about how things will change beforehand so they don’t feel blindsided by what’s to come. If they’re unwilling to open up to you, ask your teenager if they’d be willing to speak with a counselor.
Adult children (18 years old and up)
Adult children are affected by their parents’ split even if they no longer live at home. They might get angry, become resentful, feel betrayed and have trouble trusting others.
You might think they can handle hearing all the details of the divorce because they’re adults. However, this could cause more trouble as the kids might choose sides. This could potentially end the child’s relationship with the parent they don’t side with.
While you can ask your kids for support, think about how much you’re relying on them. Give your adult child space and time to process your divorce.
Helping your child cope with divorce at any age
Divorce will be difficult for every member of your family. When you have children of any age, the important thing is to keep them at an arm’s length from the intimate details of the divorce.
Divorce is the parent’s choice, yet kids are often left with the burden of changes that come along. Children who live at home are expected to switch schools, homes, and neighborhoods if parents have to move. To soften the blow, you might consider custody arrangements like birdnesting where the child stays in the family home and parents take turns living there.
You might have to build back some trust. Spend quality time with your children to show that the divorce hasn’t changed your relationship with them. Also, you don’t have to bring up the divorce in every conversation you have. Regularly check in with your children to see what’s going on in their lives and how you can support them.