Effects and Suggestions for Parents
What about divorce-and-kids? Most psychologists agree that divorce per se does not necessarily cause psychological
problems in children. The child living with unhappy parents or a chaotic or emotionally
sterile household may get into more psychological difficulty than the child whose
mismatched parents are healthy and strong enough to end a troubled relationship.
How, specifically does divorce affect children at different stages of development?
Babies and Toddlers
For babies, the impact of divorce is indirect. They feel the stress through
the stress of their parent (usually the mother). The baby's emotional and cognitive
growth is directly related to the amount of stimuli given, and the security
he/she feels is related to the consistency and quality of caretaking that he/she receives.
When a mother is going through divorce, she can either be more neglectful of the infant
because of her own emotional instability, or can be too clingy and attached to the baby.
Either extreme can affect emotional equilibrium in the infant.
As the baby grows older, (around the age of 1) she begins to fear strangers and unfamiliar
surroundings. In the Toddler(18 months - 2 years), fears of separation can intensify and
the child may have anxiety around the many changes that are occurring in his/her life.
Boys, especially, do not do as well because they are beginning to identify with the father
who is often the one who leaves. This may make the child feel unprotected. As a note,
boys of all ages have stronger negative reactions to divorce because 90 percent of the time,
it is the father who leaves. Boys also tend to be more demanding of the mother's attention
and more aggressively defiant.
With babies and Toddlers, parents can be mindful of the need for consistency in the child's
life. This is not the time to drag the baby from house to house. If at all possible, the
baby should stay in familiar surroundings and the noncustodial parent visit there. As for
the custodial parent, it is important not to over or under-parent the child. The impact
of divorce is probably the least severe at this stage, but babies and Toddlers do feel the
stress of divorce, even if they cannot verbally express it.
The preschool years, (ages 3-5) contain many elements that won't appear again until adolescence.
These years represent the development of the superego (the conscience) and along with "good"
and "bad" comes the burden of guilt. Also around this time girls and boys are developing
their gender identities. For all of the inquisitiveness and curiosity, children of this age
can't really differentiate between reality and fantasy. Divorce can create much fear and
If at all possible, parents should tell their children about the divorce together. Admit
to the child that the parents are sorry but they are no longer happy together. Also express
feeling unhappy about the divorce so the children will feel less isolated in their sadness.
Explain the situation to them in concepts they can understand and do not get into legal
or other issues that don't concern them (like custody, child support). Use terms like
"Daddy will see you a lot" rather than spell out a visitation schedule. Reassure them
that they will be taken care of, and that both parents still love them and both parents will
protect and care for them.
The very most important thing parents can do after a divorce is continue to be parents to
their children. Children will take the lead from parents who are consistent, kind, and
calming. Although the pain of divorce is felt most strongly at this Preschooler Stage, the
recovery time is also short. The effects for girls are all but gone in two years. And for
boys, the connection to the father is a key element in their weathering a divorce well.
It is essential that the parents establish continuity by recreating their own distinct
households as soon as possible.
Six to Eight
Freud called this stage "Latency". Anger, fear, betrayal, and a sense of deprivation
are characteristic responses to divorce of children this age. But above all, these children
feel sad. Easing the pain of divorce for these children is very difficult. But there are
some commonsense strategies to help. Some experts suggest that children in this age group
be told 2 or 3 weeks before the expected separation. But this is not really realistic
given how divorce occurs. Usually, there has been unhappiness for some time and it takes
one "straw" to bring the marriage to a divorce. If possible, the parents should try to
maintain a semblence of togetherness in presenting the divorce to the children and try to
give them some advance notice if possible. If this is not possible, still meet together
and explain the divorce to them. There are mixed beliefs around what to tell children
of this age, and I tend to believe that honesty without a lot of details is the best way
to go. This takes maturity and requires a certain amount of emotional stability on the
part of the parents. Since this is a particularly difficult stage (Latency), children
really do not want the divorce under any circumstances, so do not spend a lot of time
trying to make the children feel better. Just reassure them that they will be loved and
cared for by both parents and move quickly toward setting up separate, consistent, households.
Nine to Twelve
This stage is "Late Latency" and carries both good and bad news. The good news is that
the child has the maturity to understand better and they have developed a world outside
the family with friends and activities they care about. They are still on good terms
with their parents (haven't hit adolescence yet) and are more likely to see the divorce as
their parents' problem and not theirs. The bad news is that these preteens have developed
a rigid black and white sense of morality and fairness. They may react with righteous
anger when confronted with behavior in their parents that they perceive is hypocritical.
Kids of this age don't take the divorce laying down, they will be angry and will let you
Most of this extreme reaction will be gone within a year. But it is important for parents
to address certain issues so that they do not hang on and create problems for the child
later in life. Defusing the anger the child has toward the parent he/she holds responsible
for the divorce is extremely important. While it is important to be honest, trashing
the other parent or engaging the child as an ally against the other parent is wrong.
It may not only prevent the child from moving on, it may backfire on the parent who has
poisoned his mind against the other parent.
By the same token, do not associate the child
to the "hated" ex with comments like "You're just like your father." But please do associate
your child to his other parent with positive comments like "You laugh just like your father
and that's one of the things I like about him." This is especially true for boys who
associate with their fathers. Unfortunately, fathers abandon their children more often
than we would like to believe. I'll repeat this for the ....time. The most important
thing parents can do is continue to parent their children after the divorce. Recent
research has raised the question as to whether children do better with same-sex custody
arrangements. All things being equal, some studies do suggest that boys do better when
they live with their fathers; and girls with their mothers.
On a practical note, do what you can to get your preteen child involved in activities
with peers. This will help with self-esteem and will give the child positive input when
they are feeling angry and upset.
Guiding teenagers through the upheavel of divorce is not as difficult as it is for
younger children. If the child is fairly stable up to this point, he/she will be upset
but not seriously disturbed by a divorce. Again, it is important to be honest. Now the
teenager is able to understand the "grey areas" of human experience. But, even though
teenagers can seem mature, they still need to have positive feelings toward each parent.
Again, do not focus your energy on vindictive attacks on your ex. If nothing else, it
makes you seem immature to your teenager, and can come back to bite you later.
What adolescents want from parents at this point is an assurance that their childhood
was a good one, and that both parents loved them. They have a rather nostalgic and
sentimental focus on their childhood because they will soon leave it behind. At this stage
they are entering into the early stages of their own adulthood. Adolescents are trying their own relationships and, as with other
parental values they reject, the may use thier
parents marriage as a template for what they don't want. Sadly, but perhaps realistically,
teenagers can be rather cavalier and even cynical about the lasting quality of love.
Once again, we know that the single most important factor in the psychological health of children and the effects of divorce is the ability of the divorced parents to get along. The following advice may
be helpful in providing a smoother transition for the children when parents divorce.
1. Be appropriately honest and truthful about the divorce to your children.