Reflections & Insight

How Children React To Divorce

Believe it or not, you are going to survive your divorce! Divorce is a transition, a process of change. And although, for some it can feel traumatic, perhaps likely the greatest stress and challenge of your life, it can also prove to be very growth promoting. Divorce can ultimately lead to new knowledges and greater insights.
In the divorcing process, anger, conflict, and frustration may exist on many levels regardless of who initiated the divorce. What matters the most is how you choose to express anger and conflict and the effect that these behaviors have on your children. When parents cannot or will not learn to manage their emotions and inadvertently get their children involved, they set their kids up for some pretty dire consequences.

Psychological Effects of Divorce During Stages of Development

Divorce is hard for kids. They are just not equipped to handle on their own, all of the changes that divorce brings. They don’t have the emotional maturity to be able to understand and integrate this new information in the say way an adult does. They also do not have any real means of control over this process that feels like it is turning their lives upside down. At any developmental stage, children need guidance, understanding, and nurturing to make the adjustments necessary when parents divorce. So, IF from the get-go, parents are locked into a negative, criticizing, and blaming way of relating to each other, THEY are placing their kids in the middle of an emotional battlefield with no protection. The outcomes for these kids caught in the “line of fire”, can be severe. Not only mood disorders like depression and anxiety can affect kids of all ages, but also the conflict that they may witness between their parents can have a profound effect on the emotional development and self-esteem. These negative experiences can also damage any chance of them ever being able to have any kind of healthy intimate relationship when they grow to be adults.

How children react and cope with divorce depends largely on the cognitive and emotional stage of development of the child AT THE TIME THE DIVORCE OCCURS. Another important consideration in how children react depends on the basic temperament of the child. An easy-going child will have an easier time than a child who is more high strung and reactive.

Infants and Toddlers

Most people think that infants and toddlers are oblivious to the divorce. This idea is not necessarily true. Infants and toddlers do react to the disruptions in schedules as well as the tension and distraction that divorce imposes on the parents. Babies may respond by being fussier, crying more and having sleep disturbances. Toddlers often regress to earlier forms of behavior such as crawling instead of walking, or wanting a bottle after they have been weaned to a cup.

Early School Age Children

Early school age children are in the process of learning to follow rules. They may see the divorce as someone breaking the rules. Therefore, these children may see the divorce as someone is bad and is breaking rules. Children at this stage of development experience something called “normal narcissism”. Basically, they see themselves as the center of the universe because everything is about “me”. Because of this phenomenon, these children feel their actions hold a lot of power and consequences, and may believe that their misbehavior is what caused the divorce. They often feel very guilty and try to behave extraordinarily well as a way to bring their parents back together. In addition, the behavior of these children may also regress and act younger, seeking to go back to a time when their life was not as tumultuous. They may also establish attachment objects such as blankets and stuffed animals to self-sooth and comfort themselves.

Older Elementary

Up until the age of 8 or 9 years old, children are very concrete, black and white in their thinking. They do not and cannot understand the subtle underpinnings of a relationship that has ended. They may see their parent’s divorce as someone being right and someone being wrong. This way of thinking puts them in an untenable position, as they must pick one parent to be the bad one. And, that parent is most likely someone they love and do not want to lose. They need to love both parents and cannot understand the dynamics of divorce. Parents must be very sensitive and reassuring during this stage AND should avoid blaming the other parent and criticizing the other parent in front of the child/children. These negative behaviors will only support the child’s black and white thinking that will impact the child’s ability to move to the next stage of development. For healthy growth and development, children need to love both parents.


Adolescence, by design, is an intensely challenging stage of development. This is a difficult phase for kids. They are in the midst of struggling to find their own identity while trying desperately to fit in. Their moral code is challenged every day by the desire to be popular and attractive. They begin to worry about their future, about college, and about soon being out on their own. Teens need home to be a safe haven and for parents to be there to keep their world solid, safe, and dependable. When a divorce occurs at this time in an adolescent’s life, it adds tremendous stress to the already complex struggles. A teen’s basic foundation gets shaken. Unfortunately, teens have at their disposal a number of ways to escape and to not feel the emotions around their family’s transition. The use of drugs and/or alcohol may be available to kids through their peer groups. Behaviors such as staying out late, defiance, and other ways of acting out, are ways teenagers express their worries, fears, anger, and anxieties. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll take on an entirely new meaning.

Sleeper Effects/

Children also experience what is known as “sleeper effects” from divorce. When the child grows older and gains more cognitive skills and greater emotional maturity, they may look back on their parents’ divorce that took place several years before and re-interpret the event with these new skills. Many times when a new developmental milestone is achieved it triggers a reaction. Things like a first date, a first kiss, going off to college may re-awaken anxieties and concerns about the divorce which may have occurred a number of years earlier.

Children of ALL ages have fears of loss and worries about the changes that divorce can bring. They worry about losing the parent who leaves the marital home. Children may worry if a parent can divorce THEM. They may become confused and upset when a parent develops a new love relationship. Will they get to stay in the same school with their friends? Will they be able to go to camp, go away to college, or get a car? The bottom line here is that no matter what the conditions of your divorce are, no matter how old your children are, when it comes to your children, YOU HAVE A CHOICE. You can put your feelings aside and make the effort to understand your child’s developmental challenges. Or you can choose to hurt your children by encouraging them to support YOUR feelings of revenge and control over the other parent. THE CHOICE IS YOURS.

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