Divorce is painful for children. The effects of divorce vary with children's ages and depend on the circumstances surrounding the divorce. While every child is different and may react in different ways to divorce, there are some common reactions by age group that parents may see.
Preschool children live in a small world mostly made up of parents and family. They have not had many experiences. They react to what is happening in an emotional way and cannot understand the divorce on an intellectual level. Divorce is confusing and preschool children may be afraid that they will be abandoned or have nowhere to live. They cry, cling, or become demanding. They may blame themselves for the divorce and feel guilty.
Elementary Age Children
Children of ages 5-12 are expanding their world to include peers and school rather than just family. They react to what is happening by thinking about it and questioning. They worry about many things and believe in living by rules and that life is fair. Children may respond by feeling abandoned and insecure. Because of the loss of one parent, they fear that something will happen to the parent with whom they live most of the time. Problems at school and with friends may surface. Younger children in this age group often feel very sad at the breakup of the family while the older children may have deep anger.
Young teenagers are in a stage where they are going through rapid physical, social, and emotional growth. Often they are confused, moody and feel insecure. At times they may act like a little child by clinging or being demanding to parents. Other times they reject parents and attach to friends. When parents divorce, early adolescents have more stress that may result in their feeling rejected and ashamed or angry toward their parents to camouflage their sense of vulnerability. Problems with sleeping, health, school or friends may arise. When parents vie for their allegiance, loyalty conflicts result in guilt, depression and despair.
This stage may be stormiest for the parent and child relationships. Older teenagers are trying on different roles and in the process of establishing their identities. Divorce may make teenagers feel hurried to achieve independence when they aren't ready, and they become overwhelmed by unsolvable problems and feelings of incompetence. Teenagers may test their parents' concern for them. This age group may become preoccupied with the survival of relationships and mourn the loss of the family of their childhood. They feel embarrassed and resentful toward parents who are perceived as giving their own needs priority.
Babies and Toddlers
- Trouble sleeping
- Afraid to leave parent; clinging crankiness
- Slowing down in learning new skills
Children, Ages 3-5 Years
- Blame selves for divorce and feel guilty
- Fear of abandonment
- Aggression, temper tantrums
- Return to security items
- Lapses in toilet training
- Try to convince selves all is OK
- Emotionally needy
Children, Ages 6-8 Years
- Crying and sobbing
- Feel abandoned and rejected
- Loyalty conflicts
- Sense of helplessness
- Hope parents reconcile
Children, Ages 9-12 Years
- Deep anger
- Physical complaints
- Sense of loss
- Fear of loneliness
- Divided loyalties--anger toward parent they blame for the divorce
- Feelings of betrayal
- Hard to concentrate
- Chronic fatigue
- May feel hurried to achieve independence
- May be overly dependent
- May test parents' concern for them
- May align with one parent
- Worry about survival of relationships
- Money worries