It’s common for unhappy couples to stay together because they believe that it’s better for their kids to grow up with two parents in the household. Inevitably, this leads to many divorces occurring as soon as those kids leave for college – a phenomenon so common that it’s now become known as “the freshman call.”
For couples with children, there is no ideal time to get a divorce. However, staying in an unhappy marriage where children are exposed to conflict or apathy is no gift to anyone. If both parents want to stay together, they should focus on making the marriage healthy again through couples therapy. However, if both sides realize that the marriage is over, it’s better for the entire family to end the marriage constructively.
Should You Divorce Now, or Should You Wait Until the Children Are Older to Get Divorced?
From a development perspective, divorce offers different challenges for kids based on their age. Here are some considerations for different stages of development.
Divorcing with Infants
The infancy period is a time when children are developing an attachment to their primary caregiver. This is the relationship that will be the foundation for their future relationships. Divorcing parents need to work as a team so that their infant children develop a strong attachment to their primary caregiver while also building a strong relationship with the other parent.
Divorcing with Toddlers
Toddlers need consistency and physical contact to feel loved and secure. Frequent contact with both parents is ideal rather than going long periods without seeing one parent (although this doesn’t necessarily mean frequent transitions between houses). Toddlers have more language than infants but cannot understand complicated adult relationships, so explanations about the divorce should be short and clear.
Divorcing with Preschoolers
Preschoolers don’t understand the concept of divorce. They believe that loving someone means being with them. When their parents do not live together, they may fear they are no longer loved. Also, a lot of complex feelings are beginning to emerge (guilt, anger, embarrassment, worry, sadness, loss) that a toddler can’t fully understand or express. Encourage children to share questions and concerns about divorce and provide honest answers, with age-appropriate information. Parents should expect regressed behavior (sleep issues, toileting accidents, etc.) and renewed separation anxiety (clinging behaviors, especially around transitions).
Divorcing with Young School-Aged Children
Children understand and experience divorce in a more sophisticated manner; however, they still require significant support to help them manage this life change. School-aged children have a clearer understanding as to how divorce will affect their lives (e.g., moving across two different households, potentially changing schools, impact on extracurricular activities, etc.) and can adapt to co-parenting more easily than younger kids. However, this understanding can make them feel that their lives are outside of their control. Parents can help their children regain a sense of control by allowing them to provide input in decisions that will affect their lives. The input allows parents to understand what matters to their kids.
Divorcing with Preteens
Children in this age group have rigid moral views (as you know if you have ever played a board game with a 10-year-old). They also have unique social concerns and worldviews that need to be taken into consideration to help them cope with the changes that accompany divorce. This growing awareness of social interactions often leads preteens to be embarrassed by their parents’ divorce. Instead of being defensive about their embarrassment, use this as an opening for a conversation about their feelings and what about the divorce worries them. Preteens will often react with either anger or by withdrawing. They need increased monitoring to make sure they do not turn to risky behavior (substances, eating issues, sexual activity, cutting, etc.) to cope.
Divorcing with Teenagers
The unique aspects of the teen years make divorce even more difficult for kids to process. Teenagers are working to separate themselves from their parents and develop their own identity. In order to keep this process on track during or after a divorce, there are some concrete things you can do. Asking teenagers to be adults is an unfair burden; they need to devote time and energy to their own development (activities, friends, school, jobs, etc.). For girls, being “parentified” can look like too many caretaking responsibilities or becoming one spouse’s confidant. For boys, it can look like “being the man of the house” (this pressure can be felt from both parents, not just from moms). Be flexible and consider allowing friends to occasionally join in visitation activities so that teens don’t feel they have to miss out on social time to have family time. As with preteens, teens also need additional supervision to make sure they are not engaging in risky behavior.
Divorcing with College-Aged Kids
While most of the concerns regarding the impact of divorce on children are focused on younger children living at home, divorce also impacts young adults. With the news of divorce, the idea of “home” may be lost. Your child may worry that he won’t have a place to go to over the break or be sad about the loss of his childhood home. There can also be feelings of guilt (“I could have helped my parents more”) and shock. One study found that college-aged kids often romanticized their parents’ relationship and felt they grew up in the perfect “all-American family.” For these kids, the news of an impending divorce can be a complete surprise. Another common reaction is for college-aged kids to become cynical about their own relationships, especially romantic relationships. They think, “If I thought my parents were fine, what else do I not know?”
Should You Wait Until the Children Are Older to Get Divorced? It Depends…
Divorce challenges vary based on the age and developmental stage of your child(ren). Also, each child has a unique personality and history that they bring to the experience. Engaging in a process, such as mediation or Collaborative Divorce, and utilizing the experience of a divorce coach or child therapist can help you navigate the process in a way that is protective of your child’s development, whatever age they may be.