A Child’s Reactions To Divorce

Infants & toddlers

Reactions

  • loss of developmental accomplishments (return to bottle/crawling, waking in the night)
  • highly reactive to their environment
  • may become angry when their needs are overlooked or when caretaking schedules are unpredictable 
  • demonstrates fear by clinging to parent and refusing to separate from a parent
  • exhibits intense feelings of frustration and anger through biting, hitting, throwing toys 
  • may not interact with adult caregivers
  • loss of interest in exploring their environment

What to do

  • make sure the daily routine is reasonably consistent
  • initially keep child-care arrangements intact 
  • maintain consistent drop-off and pick-up times allow your child to take two or three familiar objects to the day-care setting 
  • keep in mind that long separations from the primary parent may be highly distressing for the child
  • reduce parental hostilities

Preschool 

Reactions:

  • loss of developmental accomplishment (return to the bottle, soiling self, baby talk, etc.)
  • confusion over the cause of the divorce and how it will affect their own life
  • belief that they are responsible for the divorce 
  • fears of rejection and abandonment separation anxiety may exhibit anger and aggression toward other children or siblings 
  • temper tantrums may increase more possessive of personal items may cry frequently
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • may appear joyless, listless and withdrawn

What to do:

  • frequently reassure your children that they will be taken care of and that their parents still love them 
  • provide an opportunity for your child to share his fears and concerns allow your child to spend meaningful one-on-one time with each parent as often as possible
  • initially keeping child-care arrangements intact 
  • provide a reassuring sense of consistency (daily activities, bedtime routine, discipline, etc.)
  • minimize the number of changes 
  • reduce parental hostilities

Early Primary School Age (six to eight)

Reactions:

  • preoccupation with feelings of sadness, loss, rejection and guilt 
  • may cry easily, act cranky, and be anxiously distractible; 
  • difficulty concentrating
  • the decline in school performance complaints of headaches, stomach aches or other physical complaints 
  • attempts to actively reunite their parents (sometimes by having problems that force parental involvement)
  • may assume the role of the absent parent in order to comfort or support the primary parent
  • strong sense of responsibility to take care of their parents

What to do:

  • allow your child to love both parents without pressuring them to side with one parent against the other 
  • avoid criticising the other parent in front of child 
  • reassure your child that you still love them and will take care of them 
  • let them know that the other parent will still love them and will take care of them 
  • provide a sense of consistency (daily activities, bedtime routines, discipline, etc.)
  • minimise the number of positive and negative changes 
  • reduce parental hostilities

Preteens (nine to twelve)

Reactions:

  • may exhibit sadness, loneliness, insecurity, and feelings of helplessness
  • attempt to undo the divorce
  • tend to feel alone and frightened, but since they are easily embarrassed, they may pretend to act cool 
  • complaints of headaches, stomach aches or other physical complaints 
  • may take sides and choose one parent over the other 
  • may feel and express intense anger 
  • have a strong sense of loyalty and may tend to rescue and side with the “wronged” parent 
  • may adopt an adult role 
  • the decline in school performance friendships may suffer
  • may engage in stealing, lying, or refusing to go to school
  • may prematurely date and become involved in sexual behaviour

What to do:

  • talk about the divorce and the changes that will occur, but avoid the legal details 
  • allow your child to express his fears, concerns, and complaints to each parent
  • acknowledge your child’s anger and attempt to change those things that the child finds most upsetting 
  • do not pressure your child to choose sides 
  • reduce parental hostilities

Adolescents Reactions:

  • less talkative and temporarily withdraw to cope with their feelings and emotions 
  • exhibit angry and rebellious behavior 
  • may become sexually active
  • may use drugs and alcohol as a way to escape
  • decline in school performance 
  • may become preoccupied with a sense of family 
  • may adopt an adult role

What to do:

  • encourage open and honest communication, but avoid legal details 
  • encourage your child to ask questions and state their concerns about the departed parents 
  • avoid relying on your child as a source of emotional support
  • reduce parental hostilities

Always

Encourage open and honest communication between parent and child. 

Allow your child to express their fears, concerns, and complaints

Answer your child’s questions honestly and patiently without providing adult information that would cause undue stress for your child. 

When your child asks you a question that is difficult to answer due to its personal nature, respond by saying, “It’s okay for you to ask me questions. Sometimes I may not give you an answer because I don’t feel comfortable sharing it with you at the time. Please respect my privacy and I will respect yours.”

Reassure your child that they will be taken care of, that you still love them, and that the divorce wasn’t their fault

Minimize positive and negative change.

Help your child maintain contact with extended family and friends

Prepare your child for changes before they happen

Permit and actively encourage your child to love both parents

Provide a stable and secure home by practising consistent discipline, maintaining rules and limits and consistent daily routines and schedules

Sources: Arbuthno, J. & Gordon, D.A. (1993). Children in the middle. Athens, Ohio: Center for Divorce EducationBerger, S. (1983). Divorce Without Victims. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.Clapp, G.(1992). Divorce & New Beginnings. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.Kalter, N. (1990). Growing Up With Divorce. New York: The Free Press.Marston, S. (1994). The Divorced Parent. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc.

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