Children of Different Ages Handle Divorce Differently

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Divorce signifies both an end to the marital relationship and a change in the parent-child relationship. In additional to dealing with their own feelings around the divorce, parents develop new concerns and fears about how their children are handling the divorce. While children’s response to divorce can vary widely, researchers have uncovered some common threads that highlight the needs of children at different ages. Regardless of age, don’t expect children to deal with the divorce overnight. The effects of divorce can last more than a couple years, but improve more quickly when parents continually reinforce that they love them and when they do their best to keep children out of parental conflict.

One of the most important factors influencing how young children, 0-3 adjust to divorce is parents ability to take care of themselves. When parents’ needs are met, they are better able to recognize and attend to the needs of their children. Children this age may express feelings of anxiety or sadness by complaining that they feel sick. This gives a parent a great opportunity to show the child that they will continue to take care of them. Children under the age of three may express fears of abandonment between visitations because they do not always have the developmental capacity to internalize memories of the nonresidential parent. Finding ways to have a consistent presence can help minimize these feelings.

Older children become more aware of their emotions and the emotions of those around them. Remember, children will have many feelings about the divorce and these feelings will change as they grow and gain a greater understanding of what divorce means in their family. Reaffirm that the divorce is an adult decision to live apart and avoid anything that may make children feel blamed. It is also important to limit conflict and never put children in a position where they have to choose between their parents. Children need affirmation that their relationship with each parent is not lost, just different. Help children feel supported, create a space for them to talk, and listen when they express the need to talk.

Adolescents become more aware of issues surrounding the divorce as they become more and more capable of understanding complex issues. As a result, teens may be more likely to ask questions and express a desire to take part in grown-up discussions. While it is normal for adolescents to push you away, they also want to pull you closer. Keep talking with your teens as they continue testing if you really care.

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Shelly D. Mahon, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Human Development and Family Studies. Ms Mahon is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Email:

© 2009/2010 Shelly D. Mahon

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