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Child Development and the Effects of Divorce

Divorce in and of itself does not harm children; it is the intensity and duration of the conflict-between-parents that negatively impacts a children’s adjustment.

It is important to know that children’s behaviors are likely to change as a normal response to divorce. Divorce does, however, affect children’s behaviors and their reaction varies widely, depending on many factors, especially age.

Divorcing parents usually do not know what is best for their children at this time. In fact, when their children exhibit what they consider to be negative behaviors, they frequently attribute those behaviors to the other parent’s bad parenting practices.

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The following information is provided for your own understanding and background to educate yourself about the changes you see in your children.

Newborn to 6 Months

In infancy, one of a child’s primary developmental tasks is to learn how to trust. Babies need a lot of nurturing, attention, care, and admiration from their parents. As these needs are met, babies respond with eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and certain movements. They need their parents to provide consistency in the environment, to adhere to routines, and to develop an emotional connection with them.

From birth to six months, infants need consistency in caregivers, the people they meet, and their routines. If parents must change their environment or the people around them, they should try to do so gradually. Babies this age need lots of physical attention, and eye contact, and talk that is kind and loving.

Parents should try to avoid angry outburst and fighting in front of the baby. Optimally, each parent should spend time with the baby at least every other day; if they must have overnight exchanges, they should experiment first to see if the baby can tolerate such changes in environment and routines. Young babies may exhibit changes in their sleeping and eating habits as a reaction to the change.

18 Months to 3 Years

Children in this age group continue to need consistency in parenting, environments caregivers, and routines. They gradually become more independent and begin to test their limits. They need to learn about self-control without losing self-esteem, and they need to learn to deal with doubt and shame.

As they learn these developmental tasks, they need continual reassurance of their parents’ love. Their parents need to nurture them and set reasonable limits on them in a respectful manner. All children of this age develop fears of being abandoned, and these fears are exacerbated by separation from parents. In a parent’s absence, a child may even fear that the parent has disappeared.

At this age, children are also concerned about security and who will care for them. When there are changes in routines and consistency, parents need to assure the child, in words that the toddler can understand, that he or she will be cared for.

What Parents Need to Know About Children 18 Months to 3 Years

The important things for divorcing parents to know are the following:

3 Years to 5 Years

The developmental tasks for children in this age group call for learning self-motivation and how to overcome guilt and development their own identities. They accomplish these tasks through play and exploration. Their parents need to set safe limits for them in a kind, understanding way.

At this age, children fear being abandoned and rejected. They also develop imagination and fantasies. In the midst of divorce, their fears and fantasies translate into insecurity about their own lovability. They may believe that a parent left the home because they (the child) did something wrong or bad or because they (the child) were not “good enough.” These children may create fantasies and tell stories about their parents’ reconciliation. This is from their desire to have their parents back together. A parent who does not understand this may blame the other parent for “putting things in the child’s head” because the other wants to reconcile.

These children may also have gruesome fantasies about some horrible demise of a parent as a way of explaining why hey believe that parent has disappeared. Children at this stage may react to the divorce by regressing in their sleeping, eating, and toilet habits and even their talking. They may be very clingy and have difficulty going from one parent to the other. They may also become more aggressive in their activity and play, or more withdrawn.

What Parents Need to Know About Children Three to Five Years

The important things for divorcing parents to know are as follows:

6 to 8 Years

The developmental task for children in this age group is to achieve a sense of competence by bonding with peers, by learning to compete with peers, and by trusting that their parents will be there for them when needed. At this stage, they are working on friendships, learning interpersonal and academic skills, and developing morals.

When their parents divorce, they have a strong yearning for the absent parent and a strong interest in parental reconciliation. They have loyalty conflicts, because they know they are part of both parents; when their parents fight they feel torn inside. When one parent disrespects the other, they feel that half of who they are is negated or discounted. They sometimes become very concerned about their parents’ well-being and take care of a parent who is distraught or unhappy, even to the extent of denying their own needs.

These children do not want to be in the middle of their parent’s conflicts and do not want to carry messages from one parent to the other. Consequently, the parents need to develop their communication protocols for separately parenting the child, without having the child carry any messages between parents.

The reaction to the divorce for children at this stage is deep sadness, which may be revealed in crying and withdrawal. Children fear that they may lose their relationship with one of the parents, and they fear a loss of order in their lives. They are also afraid of being deprived of important things in their lives, such as food and favorite possessions; in their minds, if they can lose a parent, they can certainly lose other important things as well. They may show more anger than they did previously, become more aggressive, and have difficulty playing and experiencing physical symptoms of stress such as headaches or being sick to the stomach.

9 Years to 12 Years

Children at this age are just beginning to confront changes in their own identities when their world is upset by divorce. Their sense of identity is tied to what seemed secure—home, family, neighborhood, school, and friends. They are confused by divorce because it interferes with everything they depend on. At a time when they would normally be developing academic and athletic abilities, becoming aware of gender, and beginning to experience attraction to others, this development is threatened by the divorce.

At this age, children may be ashamed or embarrassed by the divorce and may feel powerless to do anything about it. They may experience somatic symptoms based on their conflict about the divorce. They may complain of headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, and generally feeling out of sorts. They may experience intense feelings of anger and direct this anger at the parent perceived to be at fault for the divorce. They may side with one parent and shut out the other. Their school performance may deteriorate, and they may have difficulties with peers.

What Parents Need to Know About Children 9 to 12 Years

The important things for divorcing parents to know are as follows:

Teenagers: 13-18

Years Just when adolescents are developing into adulthood and planning their eventual exit from the family, they are upstaged by their parents’ divorce. They need support from their parents when their parents are least emotionally available. Parent-adolescent relationships are normally tenuous, and a divorce makes them more so.

At this age, children may accelerate their independence from the family or delay it because of the divorce. While they are working on developing their further individuality, the divorce interferes. Some children in this age group take on the responsibilities of the absent parent and side with the parent who is present. If the parent who is present takes the child’s side in this situation, the absent parent is alienated, and the child is damaged by the alienation.

In reaction to divorce, adolescents begin to feel insecure about their own relationships. They often fear that they may never be able to have a happy marriage.

What Parents Need to Know About Teenagers

The important things for divorcing parents to remember are as follows:

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