Children’s Understanding of Divorce by Age Group

Children’s understanding of parental divorce depends on their age. It is important for parents to know what thoughts and feelings children of different ages may be having so that they can modify their own behaviors to help children adjust to the divorce.

INFANTS

  • Understandings
    • Infants notice changes in parents’ energy level and emotional state.
    • Older infants notice when one parent is no longer living in the home.
  • Feelings
    • More irritability, such as crying and fussing.
    • Changes in sleeping, napping, and other daily routines.
    • If a new adult moves into the home, older infants may be nervous and fearful.
  • What parents can do for infants
    • Keep normal schedules and routines.
    • Reassure infants of your continued presence with physical affection and loving words.
    • Keep children’s favorite toys, blankets, or stuffed animals close at hand.
    • Gradually introduce older infants to new adult friends.

TODDLERS

  • Understandings
    • Recognize that one parent no longer lives at home.
    • May express empathy toward others, such as a parent who is feeling sad.
  • Feelings
    • May have difficulty separating from parents.
    • May express anger toward parent.
    • May lose some of the skills they have developed, like toilet training.
    • Toddlers may show some of the behaviors that they “grew out of,” such as thumb sucking.
    • Sleeping and naptime routines may change.
    • Older toddlers may have nightmares.
  • What parents can do for toddlers
    • Spend more time with children when preparing to separate (e.g., arrive 10 to 15 minutes earlier than usual when you take your child to child care).
    • Provide physical and verbal reassurance of your love.
    • Show understanding of child’s distress; recognize that, given time and support, old behaviors (thumb sucking) will disappear and newly developed skills (toilet training) will reappear.
    • Talk with other important adults and caregivers about how to support your child during this transition time.

PRESCHOOL and EARLY ELEMENTARY CHILDREN

  • Understandings
    • Preschoolers recognize that one parent no longer lives at home.
    • Elementary school children begin to understand that divorce means their parents will no longer be married and live together, and that their parents no longer love each other.
  • Feelings
    • Will likely blame themselves for the divorce.
    • May worry about the changes in their daily lives.
    • Have more nightmares.
    • May exhibit signs of sadness and grieving because of the absence of one parent.
    • Preschoolers may be aggressive and angry toward the parent they “blame.”
    • Because preschoolers struggle with the difference between fantasy and reality, children may have rich fantasies about parents getting back together.
  • What parents can do for preschool and early elementary children
    • Repeatedly tell children that they are not responsible for the divorce.
    • Reassure children of how their needs will be met and of who will take care of them.
    • Talk with children about their thoughts and feelings; be sensitive to children’s fears.
    • Plan a schedule of time for children to spend with their other parent. Be supportive of children’s ongoing relationship with the other parent.
    • Read books together about children and divorce (see list at end of guide).
    • Gently, and matter-of-factly, remind children that the divorce is final and that parents will not get back together again.

PRETEENS and ADOLESCENTS

  • Understandings
    • Understand what divorce means but may have difficulty accepting the reality of the changes it brings to their family.
    • Although thinking at a more complex level, still may blame themselves for the divorce.
  • Feelings
    • May feel abandoned by the parent who moves out of the house.
    • May withdraw from long-time friends and favorite activities.
    • May act out in uncharacteristic ways (start using bad language, become aggressive or rebellious).
    • May feel angry and unsure about their own beliefs concerning love, marriage, and family.
    • May experience a sense of growing up too soon.
    • May start to worry about “adult matters,” such as the family’s financial security.
    • May feel obligated to take on more adult responsibilities in the family.
  • What parents can do for preteens and adolescents
    • Maintain open lines of communication with children; reassure children of your love and continued involvement in their lives.
    • Whenever possible, both parents need to stay involved in children’s lives, know children’s friends, what they do together, and keep up with children’s progress at school and in other activities.
    • Honor family rituals and routines (Sunday dinner, weeknight homework time, grocery shopping together, watch favorite television shows or movies as a family).
    • If you need to increase children’s household responsibilities, assign chores and tasks that are age-appropriate (help with laundry, housecleaning, yard work, meal preparations); show appreciation for children’s contributions.
    • Avoid using teenage children as confidants; plan special time for yourself with adult friends and family members.
    • Tell children who will be attending special occasions such as sporting events and graduation ceremonies, especially if you plan to take a new romantic partner.

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University of Missouri-Columbia
Sara Gable, State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies
Kelly Cole, Extension Associate

Copyright 2002 University of Missouri.
Published by University Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia.

This Article was based on Children’s Understanding Of Divorce By Age Group

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