The Emotional Responses of Different Aged Children to Separation and Divorce

We at Bender LeFante Law Offices, believe that most people love their children and want what is best for them. But the break-up of a marriage is an emotional and financial strain on the entire family. Often the feelings and fears of the parent can spill over onto the children. Even when the parents know that their children may have unexpected reactions to their separation, the parent’s awareness and time is restricted. Sometimes the child’s state of mind is not readily observable.
A recent article The Effects of Divorce on Children by Donald A. Gordon (Ph.D.) and Jack Arbuthnot (Ph.D.) broke down the common effects of divorce on children at various ages and age appropriate actions parents can take to help their children through this difficult period. While every child is different, the general information can help you be more aware of what your child may be thinking and how you can help. According to the article the following general categories are:
Preschoolers: These children live in an egocentric world. They often believe that things that happen are caused by them. They have guilt that they may have caused the break-up and fear that if the parents can leave each other, the child may be abandoned also. Often times the child will go back to former behaviors such as wetting their pants or wanting a pacifier. Parents should spend extra time with the children and assure them that they are loved and the break up is not the child’s fault. The preschooler should be given space and encouraged to discuss any fears he or she may have.
Age 6-8: School age children often go through a period of grief, thinking that the parent who left has stopped loving them but, since they don’t see that parent as often, they often take out their anger at the absent parent on the custodial parent. Many children will cry and be sad. Parents should be sure the child gets to spend significant time with each parent, if possible. In addition, parents should avoid conversations which will make the child feel a need to take sides, instead explaining how each parent loves the child. The child should be allowed to express love for the absent parent and have pictures and mementoes of the parent displayed in their room.
Age 9-12: Preteens often hide their feelings, even if they really want to see the absent parent more, they will often express no desire to do so or will say things are fine. Their true feelings often come out as anger, acting out, problems with peers, or health issues such as headaches, stomach aches, and more frequent colds. Each parent should take time to talk with the child. While children this age are more aware of what is going on, they may still want the parents to get back together. A significant percent of these children will take a side and often say mean or negative things about or to the other parent. Both parents should be unwilling to accept name calling or taking sides, while still providing love and support for the child. They should validate the child’s feelings but both model and require appropriate behavior in front of the children. Parents should use their best efforts not to argue in front of the children.
Age 13-18: The article stopped with the pre-teens. Teens will often want to appear stoic and independent, but parents should be aware of their children and note changes in personality or conduct. Each parent should spend time with the children and acknowledge that the child has the right to love each parent. Because children this age often seem adult, parents may inappropriately treat the child as a friend or confidant. Children should not be subjected to what are adult issues. In addition, it is important to provide the child with a neutral third party with whom the child can discuss the situation and his/her true feelings without feeling the need to self-censor.
You and your child’s other parent should remain vigilant in interacting with your child during the early months of your separation. If you notice issues or actions which concern you, inform the other parent and discuss how to best help your child through this difficult period. Be sure to set aside time to deal with your child’s concerns and to let your child know that both you and the other parent love and care about the child.

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