Effects of Divorce on Children: An Age-by-Age Guide

Learn how to discuss divorce with your child at any age based on their understanding of the situation and the impact it will have on their life.

By Laura Broadwell

Divorce represents a pivotal and often traumatic shift in a child’s world—and from their perspective, a loss of family. When told about the divorce, many children feel sad, angry, and anxious, and they might have a hard time grasping how their lives will change. A child’s age also impacts their response to the new family structure. Here’s a brief summary of what children comprehend at different ages and how you can ease their transition after divorce.

Effects of Divorce on Babies: Birth to 18 Months

During infancy, babies can feel tension in the home (and between their parents) but can’t understand the reasoning behind the conflict. If the tension continues, babies may become irritable and clingy, especially around new people, and have frequent emotional outbursts. They may also regress or show signs of developmental delay.

Easing the transition after divorce: Babies require consistency and routine, and they’re comforted by familiarity. Therefore it’s helpful to maintain normal daily routines, particularly regarding sleep and meals, during and after the divorce. Provide your child with their favorite toys or security items, and spend extra time holding them and offering physical comfort. Rely on friends and family for help, and get plenty of rest so you’ll be alert when your baby is awake.

Effects of Divorce on Toddlers: 18 Months to 3 Years Old

During the toddler years, a child’s main bond is with their parents, so any major disruption in their home life can be difficult to accept and comprehend. What’s more, toddlers are self-centered and may think they’ve caused their parents’ break-up. They’ll often cry and want more attention than usual, regress and return to thumb sucking, resist toilet training, develop a fear of being abandoned, or have trouble going to sleep or sleeping alone at night.

Easing the transition after divorce: If possible, parents should work together to develop normal, predictable routines that their child can easily follow. It’s also important to spend quality time with your kid and offer extra attention; ask trusted friends and relatives to do the same. Discuss your child’s feelings (if they’re old enough to talk), read books together, and assure them they’re not responsible for the divorce.

Effects of Divorce on Preschoolers: 3 to 6 Years Old

Preschoolers don’t understand the notion of divorce and don’t want their parents to separate—no matter how tense the home environment. In fact, divorce is a particularly hard concept for preschoolers to comprehend, because they feel as if they have no power to control the outcome.

Like toddlers, preschoolers might believe they’re ultimately responsible for their parents’ separation. They may experience uncertain feelings about the future, keep their anger trapped inside, have unpleasant thoughts or ideas, or be plagued by nightmares.

Easing the transition after divorce: Parents should handle the divorce in an open and positive manner, if possible, as preschoolers will reflect their parents’ moods and attitudes. They’ll likely want to talk with someone and express their feelings, and they may respond well to age-appropriate books about the topic. Kids this age also need to feel safe and secure, knowing they’ll continue seeing their non-custodial parent (the one they don’t live with) on a regular basis. Set up a regular visitation schedule and consistently adhere to it.

Effects of Divorce on Children: 6 to 11 Years Old

If school-age kids have grown up in a nurturing environment, it’s natural for them to fear abandonment during a divorce. Younger children—specifically 5- to 8-year-olds—may not understand the concept and feel as if their parents are divorcing them. They may worry about losing their father (or vice versa) and fantasize that their parents will get back together. In fact, they often believe they can “rescue” their parents’ marriage.

Kids from 8 to 11 may blame one parent for the separation and align themselves with the “good” parent against the “bad.” They may accuse their parents of being mean or selfish, expressing their anger in various ways: fighting with classmates, lashing out against the world, or becoming anxious, withdrawn, or depressed. For some kids, the effects of divorce manifest physically—think upset stomachs or headaches due to stress, as well as made-up symptoms to stay home from school.

Easing the transition after divorce: Elementary-school children can feel extreme loss and rejection during a divorce, but parents can rebuild their child’s sense of self-esteem and security. To start, each parent should spend quality time with the child, urging them to open up about their feelings. Reassure them that neither parent will abandon them, and reiterate that the divorce is not their fault. (Likewise, parents should not blame one another for the split, but explain that it was a mutual decision.) It’s also important to maintain a regular visitation schedule as kids thrive on predictability — particularly during times of turmoil.

Finally, encourage your child to get involved with events and pastimes they enjoy (school, friendships, and extracurricular activities are increasingly importance at this age). Help them rekindle their self-esteem, and encourage them to reach out to others instead of withdrawing from the world.

Sources: divorcesource.comAmerican Academy of PediatricsAmerican Medical Association