Research shows that it is best to be honest with children and discuss with them the parents’ decision to divorce.
It is important for the child that during this discussion you avoid arguments, fighting, blaming and name calling.
Regardless of their age, all children are affected in some way by their parents’ separation. The impact will be as unique as the child, however there are general understandings about divorce for each age group.
Infants: Birth to 18 months
Children in this age group can feel tension between parents, but are unable to understand the reasoning behind the conflict. Babies may become:
- have difficulties being around new people;
- experience frequent emotional outbursts;
- may regress;
- experience developmental delays.
Parents can help their children by creating routine and familiarity for them as much as possible, by spending more time holding them and providing comfort to enable security and safety.
Toddlers: 18 Months to 3 Years
Children of this age group are self-centred and may believe it is their fault that their parents have divorced. They may:
- crave attention;
- resist toilet training;
- demonstrate fear of abandonment;
- experience sleep issues.
Parents can help their child through the process of separation and divorce by discussing the child’s feelings, reading together, and reassuring the child that both still love them, and they are not responsible for the breakup.
Children: 3 to 6 Years
Children in this age group also believe it is their fault should their parents divorce. They may experience:
- negative thoughts; and
- sleep issues including nightmares.
A child of this age may mimic the parents’ behaviours. Therefore parents should try to regulate their mood and feelings when spending time with the child, to reflect positively on the relationship.
As these feelings may be new for the child, it is important for the child to identify the feeling and name it. Routine should be set up with visitation of both parents, and by creating a structure that provides regular routine and security.
Older Children: 6 to 11 Years
Children of this age may experience a fear of abandonment, which may include an expectation that the parents will get back together.
Boys in this age group may experience anger outbursts and/or blame one parent for the divorce. However, girls tend to become anxious, withdrawn or depressed.
Parents can help to rebuild their older child’s feelings of security and self-esteem by creating a regular routine and discussing new feelings the child may be experiencing. Encourage your child to pursue school, friendships and extracurricular activities they enjoy, and to ask for help when they require it.
Adolescents: 12 to 16 Years
Adolescents are more independent and may:
- withdraw from the family;
- feel conflicted by loyalty between the two parents;
- suffer from behavioural issues at school or at home;
- take on extra adult responsibilities at home.
Parents can help their adolescents by continuing to be involved in their lives and attending special occasions with them. Keeping the communication lines open with their child, and discussing feelings, can help your adolescent better understand and cope with the situation.
Author: Meggy Delaunay, PG Dip Psych Practice, PG Dip Dev Psych, M Genetic Psych, B Psych, MAPS.
Meggy Delaunay is a psychologist who primarily works with children, adolescents and young adults. She is a registered Psychologist in Australia, New Zealand and France, and can provide therapy sessions in English and French.
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