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Children's Typical Developmental Responses to Divorce

In addition to the specifics of personality, temperament, and family history, your children’s response to divorce will vary according to their age. Below is a brief and broad outline of typical responses based on different developmental stages.

Preschoolers – Because 2-5 year olds’ worlds revolves around themselves, they are prone to believe that the divorce is related to their behavior. This could derive from thoughts like “I was bad” to more primitive notions of causality such as “If I hadn’t spilt my spaghetti last night, Mom and Dad would not have fought, and they wouldn’t be divorcing.” It is important to be attuned to this thought process and relieve your children of the idea that the divorce is their fault and that they have the power to fix it.

Preschoolers tend to focus on what is immediately visible to them, and their fears will correspond accordingly. These can run the gamut of the tragic (“Will I ever see my mommy again?”) to the mundane (“Will I still be having macaroni and cheese on Friday nights?”). Having an abundance of these fears can lead to regressive behaviors (such as clinginess, problems in toilet training, and seeking out security objects) or even aggressive behavior. And because they are rooted in the present, expressions of grief rarely last a long time and are likely to be expressed during play or in artwork.

Young Elementary School Children – If not addressed directly, 6-8 year oldsmay see themselves as holding the power to reunite their parents. This can lead to futile attempts to be good so as to “heal” the family or, the opposite, an unconscious effort to reunite mom and dad by forcing them to deal with the child’s negative, acting out behavior.

It is normal for this age group to express more grief than preschoolers and engage in more crying or sobbing, so it is helpful to elicit their emotions and validate their sadness. See <> That being said, some children at this age (particularly girls) are prone to taking responsibility for their parents’ emotions. Don’t be complicit in your children’s parentification (in which they repress their emotions in favor of taking care of yours).

Lastly, be prepared for your children to idealize the missing parent and express anger towards the physically present custodial parent. This, while painful to you, is a commonplace phenomenon and is a symptom of the separation rather than a reflection of their attachment to the custodial parent. Don’t let this dynamic slip into a loyalty conflict where you try to get your children to understand your perspective and side with you against your ex-spouse. This is deeply harmful to their wellbeing. Being cajoled into taking sides can develop into an uncomfortable disconnection (or even alignment) with the “bad” parent. And, either way, they will feel forced to betray one parent or the other. Reassure them that it is OK to have angry feelings and to have a close relationship with both parents.

Older Elementary School Children and Tweens – 9-12 years olds can have a tendency to repress their feelings and deny grief, anger or sadness around missing one or the other parent. As a result, you may notice that your child is experiencing more negative, physical symptoms -- a somatic manifestation of their intense emotions. Try to coax out their feelings by asking questions and listening without reassuring them too quickly or persuading them to feel differently.

This age group’s comparative intellectual sophistication can sometimes lead to the child having a more “objective” analysis regarding the causes for the divorce and, therefore, more anger at the parents for breaking up the family and creating all the challenges that divorce entails. It is helpful to present a Divorce Story [see below] that your child can fall back on that comfortably frames the reasons for divorce, offers hope that the logistics surrounding the child’s life will remain stable, and assures the child that he/she can maintain a relationship with both parents.

Lastly, these children are increasingly self-conscious of what others think, and may carry shame around the marital breakup. Spend time hearing and understanding their perspective. Help them by validating their emotions and normalizing their experience through peer support or group therapy.

Adolescents – During adolescence, children are very peer oriented. Their sense of belonging, identity, intimacy, and security are all mediated through the prism of their social group. And, at the same time, adolescents are trying very hard to individuate and form a sense of self that is separate from their parents. Consequently, don’t be surprised if your teenager seeks out his/her peers during this sensitive time. While it is always important to be emotionally available for your children, and to facilitate authentic expression of their feelings, don’t worry if your teenager is choosing to find support within the comfort of his/her social group. Red flags that you should be alert to are antisocial or lonely behavior, delinquency, academic failure, substance abuse, and the loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities.

Also, teenagers need clear and consistent structure and discipline. Divorced parents should provide a unified front and the clear message to their teen that they will continue to act as a cohesive parental unit. If divorced parents become preoccupied with their own conflict, teens will take advantage of the lack of supervision and/or play one parent against the other to exercise their will in an unhealthy way.

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