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.

Preschooler girl unhappy because parents are fighting and arguing

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.

Navigating a divorce when you have kids requires considering how the divorce may affect them. 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

Though it may come as a surprise to some, even babies are affected by divorce. 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

Divorcing parents can ease their baby's transition after divorce by creating an emotionally safe environment. 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

Divorce can emotionally and psychologically impact children from ages 18 months to 3 years. 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

Parents should consider prioritizing their child's routines to help ease the transition to post-divorce life. 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

Divorce is a difficult concept for children between the ages of 3 and 6 to understand mainly because of the scary level of uncertainty it brings. Preschoolers don't understand the notion of divorce and don't want their parents to separate—no matter how tense their home environment.

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

To help kids between the ages of 3 and 6 ease into the transition of divorce, parents should commit to modeling the behavior and attitude they want to see in their children.

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

Divorce may leave school-age kids between the ages of 6 and 11 struggling with feelings of abandonment. 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 one of their parents 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

Divorcing parents can help prevent their kids from feeling abandoned by creating reliably consistent opportunities for quality time together.

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.com; American Academy of Pediatrics; American Medical Association

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles