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How Divorce Affects Children at Different Ages

Divorce is difficult on everyone. You and your partner. Your families. Your friends. But there’s no one that divorce is more difficult on than your children. Nearly 50% of all children in the U.S. will become a child of divorce at some point in their lives. And the age at which divorce occurs in a child’s life can have a very different effect on how children process it, how they cope, and how it impacts who they become.


Babies & Toddlers (0-3)

Newborns and little children are too young to understand what is going on between divorcing parents. There is no conscious processing, only emotional reacting. Babies may not remember the event, but they will feel a break in the routine and can develop emotional trauma from a lack of attention, lack of affection, or lack of love.

Slightly older children may appear to react with more awareness, but it’s often just confusion as they try to understand the world. Their primal focus is on elements of survival—food, shelter, protection—and the instability of a divorce can lead them to panic that they’re losing those core essentials.


TAKE THE INITIATIVE: Children who are this young can’t process an explanation of why their parents are separating, but they will react to changes in the delivery of their needs. From eating to affection, try to establish and maintain routines. Your consistency will give them security.


Pre-School & Elementary (4-7)

Children in this age range are beginning to develop a sense of self, but their worlds are still almost entirely at home. Young children may internalize divorce as a loss, as “losing” one parent from the all-important home. They still cannot understand their parents’ divorce as a singular event, and many will wonder what else they are going to lose—including possibly the remaining parent.

These fears of abandonment can lead to anxiety in young children. Some may act out at home. Others may have nightmares. Many will blame themselves and could start to develop insecurities or feelings of inadequacy. These are all common warning signs to keep an eye on, and you may want to consult with a professional. 


TAKE THE INITIATIVE: Children in this group may process their parents’ divorce as abandonment, and you and your partner should make all efforts to refute that idea. It may seem impossible, but refrain from fighting in front of your children. Resist the urge to involve them in disagreements, and never encourage them to take sides. It may feel good in the short term, but the long-term effects can be very negative.


Pre-Teens and Teens (8-15)

Most experts agree that children in this age range are the most at-risk for emotional and psychological trauma from divorce. A recent University of College London study found that children in this age group had a 16% increase in emotional problems and an 8% rise in conduct issues. It’s a difficult period because children are self-aware, but not yet emotionally mature enough to understand adult relationships.

Children in this age range often fantasize that their parents will get back together. Some even believe that they can save the marriage and family themselves (through better behavior, better grades, etc). This hero complex is a result of growing up and asserting independence—a healthy thing—but fails to grasp why the break-up is happening and risks spiraling a child into depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.


TAKE THE INITIATIVE: Teens and pre-teens are developing their own identities, but a family unit is still of core importance to them. They are old enough to process what they’re feeling and discuss their emotions. Encourage your children to talk about the divorce with you or a counselor. Many children will be more comfortable expressing themselves to someone outside of the family. 


Young Adults and Adults (16+)

Children are always children, regardless of age. Consequently, the separation of two parents always has an impact. Many children grow up, leave home for college or to start their own families, only to see their parents divorce later in life. Adult children should be aware that divorce still affects them, though they will have formed much of their own sense of self by then.

Likewise, late-teen children start to build relationships outside of their homes, which can help soften the impact of divorce. Many older teens will have had romantic relationships—including break-ups—giving them a beneficial perspective to see and understand their parents’ decision. It is still hard for this age group—for every age group—but it’s usually less existential for young adults than for younger children.


TAKE THE INITIATIVE: In general, young adults and adults can see their parents as human beings, susceptible to the same challenges as anyone else. Many can actually embrace divorce as a positive, an end to years of tension and sadness (and they are often right). Nevertheless, everyone copes with loss in their own way, so encourage your children to talk to a therapist. It can be very healing, whatever their age. 


To further discuss the effects of divorce on your children—and how best to prepare them in advance—please contact us at SouthBay Mediation. We’ve guided hundreds of couples to peaceful settlements, and looking out for their children is often at the heart of these resolutions. Helping families work through conflicts to find common ground and peace is our mission. 


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