The emotional complexities of divorce mean that each person processes the information differently. This is particularly true with children, who are in the midst of a continuous and sometimes tumultuous maturity cycle.
Age is a critical factor in how to approach this topic with children. Here are some broad, age-based guidelines.
Infants up to 18 months
At first glance, this seems like a best-case scenario; as a child this young couldn’t possibly be aware enough to notice the divorce, right? Unfortunately, babies are like little, ultra-sensitive tension detectors and can’t process this tension. Instead, they may become exceptionally clingy, irritable and have hair-trigger emotional outbursts. In extreme cases, they may suffer developmental delays.
Toddlers up to age 3
This group is possibly even more sensitive to familial tension than infants. At this stage, the bond with both parents is powerful and any changes or interruptions can be traumatic.
This age group may respond with more attention-seeking behavior or possibly regress in their development, undoing progress with things like toilet training or resuming old habits like thumb-sucking. They may also have trouble sleeping and develop a fear of abandonment.
Preschoolers up to age 6
At this age, children are aware enough to recognize parental discord, even if the arguing occurs out of earshot, but not mature enough to understand why.
This stress can result in irrational fear, nightmares and inconsolable worrying about the future. They may even try bargaining, promising to behave better if their parents stay together.
Ages 7 to 11
Emotions become more complicated in this age group. In addition to depression, anxiety about abandonment and blaming themselves, kids this age might develop a preference for one parent and lay blame on the other. Stress can sometimes lead to physical ailments like stomach aches.
School adds an extra wrinkle to this equation, where kids may resort to rebellion and fighting. Alternatively, they may concoct reasons for staying home from school.
Surprisingly, a handful of strategies for reducing possible stress for children span the age groups.
Parents should try to keep children away from tense situations as much as possible. Ask family and friends to watch the children when unpleasant divorce-related tasks arise.
Extra attention and a consistent schedule are particularly important for pre-teens. Children in this age group are more prone to blaming themselves for their parents’ problems, so reassurance will be essential.
At ages six and above, parents can be more forthcoming with children. They can have frank discussions about feelings and how (hopefully little) their lives will change, including when and how they will see the non-custodial parent.
It’s not all bad news. According to the National Institutes of Health, children are more resilient than most people realize. They may roll with it, exhibiting little to no psychological effects. That said, even remarkably stoic kids may report vivid stress or painful memories later in life, particularly regarding milestones like important birthdays, graduations or extracurricular events where both parents are present.