HOW DOES DIVORCE EFFECT CHILDREN AT DIFFERENT AGES? (Note: This material is based on the writings of Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, particularly, What About the Kids?, attachment theory, and general developmental psychology).
Clearly, the reality of divorce has a very large impact on all members of a family, and parents who are considering divorce naturally worry about the effects that this change will have on their children. While not underestimating the impact of this major life event on children, we now believe that, given the parents' ongoing collaborative commitments to their offspring in all matters related to them, children can not only survive this enormous change in their family, but can continue on a positive developmental course as well.
Any major event that impacts their lives will have its own, temporary effect on children. As with most situations, the key to a return to normal developmental progress will be how well both parents and other adults around them understand their distress, respond to support them, and maintain a clear sense of dedication to work together for them despite the fact of being divorced.
Below is a general description of how divorce affects children at different ages. Of course, not all children will display the symptomatic reactions described below and those who do will show varying degrees of intensity according to their temperament and many other factors. At all times, however, whether they show clear symptoms or not, the best thing that parents can do is talk with their children, answer questions without assuming or assigning blame, work hard to keep the children out of adult issues (e.g., money), and keep at the forefront of their minds that the the child's reality and perceptions is the crucial issue for the child's mental health and adjustment is, not the parents' feelings about each other.
There are many good books for parents and for children about divorce. Please see XXXXXXX on my website for some suggestions. In addition, most bookstores will have a section of books for the family that will include helping kids and parents through divorce.
General Reactions to Divorce:
Psychological Issue: Trust and Abandonment
Children at this age need the safety and security that they derive from their primary caretaker, usually the mother. Being away from this primary caretaker for any more than brief periods of time is likely to be felt by the young child as being abandoned by that most important person. The effect of this sense of abandonment is that the basic quality of being able to trust relationships is damaged, and may affect the child's relationships throughout his or her lifetime.
Further, children at all ages pick up on tension. There is no such thing as, "He couldn't understand, he's too young." While she is unable to understand the words, there is no doubt that the smallest infants discern and react to the emotion expressed by those around them. The pre-verbal child will have no way to express tension except through their bodies. Therefore, the more each parent can stay calm around the baby, and avoid exposing them to unnecessary levels of stress, the better for the child.
Parents should expect their babies to display crankiness, regression (even in the best of circumstances, where each parent is managing their feelings so as to protect the baby directly from their upset, loss of skills gained), etc., because the reality is that their lives are upset. These reactions may last a while, but will be temporary- as long as the parents are understanding, responsive, and comforting to their distressed child.
It is important for fathers and mothers to recognize that, in the 1st year of life, the primary attachment is to the mother, as she provides security and soothing through her empathy to the baby's subtle and explicit states, which is biologically enhanced through the experience of childbirth and its accompanying hormonal changes. Through her soothing, she is helping the baby to develop self-control over her or his feelings by gaining experience in the cycle of upset and excitement followed by calming and a return to normalcy. Each successful experience in this cycle actually builds connections within the brain that strengthen the child's ability to handle future stress.
During the 2nd year of life, attachment to father begins to come in. At a psychological level, dad is now perceivable by the youngster as a separate person who is also available for safety and soothing, although mom remains the primary provider of this basic need. The father's new job is to introduce the child, who is becoming more mobile and gaining better control of his or her body, to the management of aggression. So, if dad is a 'roughhouse' kind of guy, there is nothing inherently wrong as long as the play is within appropriate limits and is concluded by a return to safety, calm, and mutual pleasure- again, the child has the opportunity to practice the important cycle of excitement-calming-return to normalcy.
Toddlers don't have a sense of real time. Especially where the normal rhythm of daily life has been disrupted by separation or divorce, it is helpful to the child to be reminded about what is going to happen. "Daddy is coming soon," or, "Mom will be here to get you in just a little while," helps the child adjust his expectations and reactions in a smooth way. This is important in the immediate sense of managing the stress of divorce, as well as helping with the important life-task of early childhood mentioned above, learning to regulate emotions.
Introduce new caretakers gradually and carefully. Focus on the baby/toddler's reaction to the new person, and be ready to accommodate to it. This may include spending time together with the caretaker and your child, spacing visits over longer periods of time at first, or simply postponing for a while. Again, watch your child's reaction at the moment, and over the next few days. Stress reactions can be delayed (see overnights, below). All of this may be inconvenient at times, but time spent in helping the baby adjust now will pay great dividends later.
Concerning overnights at this age, the parents' level of cooperativeness is the crucial element in how a baby or toddler will handle time away from their primary attachment figure. There is no clear direction in the research for determining how much time should be spent with one parent or the other, but the logic of attachment theory would say the younger the child, the more time he or she should spend with the mother. My feeling is that infants and toddlers should be away for their mothers for no more than limited mounts of time, and very seldom if at all overnight. A full active day with dad should end with a return to mom for the night. This can vary, of course, with exceptional families. The fact that a baby appears to manage an overnight with a parent should not be understood to mean that this can become a regular, frequent event. Children handle stress in different ways, and the holding in of tension, though often giving the appearance of being successful on the surface, may well be ultimately damaging to the child by forcing him or her to hold their distress inside. Often, it is released in less healthy ways later, and can easily appear to have little relationship to the stress of having been away from mom too long. However, changes in crankiness, irritability, feeding or sleeping behavior, even though they don't seem related to the recent overnight away from the primary caretaker, should be seen as a possible delayed stress reaction, and this should be taken into account when planning the next overnight.
Most children should be able to spend an overnight with their fathers by 2 years of age, if cooperation among the parents is present. Two consecutive nights, or even within only a few days, may still be too much at this age.
Why? What psychologists call Object permanence, the ability to understand that something that was here is still present even though you can't see it, comes in for close objects at 6-8 months, but isn't really fully established until much older- especially for relationships. Under the stress of divorce, regression may send the child into believing that his mother has disappeared when he is away from her. Unable to process this experience through intellectual understanding, the child is left with the experience of abandonment, and a blow to their ongoing sense of trust in relationships and security in the world, even though mom eventually reappears.
Fathers need to understand the baby's need for consistency and trust. It is not about "love." It is about the baby's capabilities and their resulting loss of security if those capabilities are overtaxed. The loving father will be focused on his child's overall adjustment, even if it means he can't have the child stay with him as much as he's like just yet.
Psychological Issue: Fear. Who will take care of me?
Second issue: How long is it until...?
Third issue: If one parent can leave me, why can't both?
To combat these and other fears, small children will use whatever means they have handy to elicit attention from their parents to both soothe themselves, and to try to bring the parents back together. They are likely to display regression, again: thumb-sucking, rocking, loss of gains such toilet training, as if they were thinking, "I'll be a baby again- everything was good then." (Don't hold the child to realistic thinking; we know that, for children, just like for adults, memory is influenced by desire). Dramatic behavior, such as tantrums, out-of-control behavior, etc., may also be attempts to regain the mutual attention of both parents, and thereby bring them back together.
The child at this age does not have a real sense of time or distance, so cannot measure a span of time without seeing the absent parent.
Separations at this age are filled with anxiety: Will I see you again? How can I be sure? The capacity to handle separation is still a new skill. Under stress, it, too, will regress, and the child is vulnerable to feeling the fear, if not terror, of leaving the parent they are feeling attached to at the moment. Any transition may be marked by expressions of worry, fear, anxiety, crying, etc., as the child anticipates leaving the momentary security of the parent they are with. It does not mean they favor that parent and fear the other. It can simply mean, this change stuff is hard.
Remember: From the child's point of view, the most important structure of her life so far has just fallen apart. The world is now a strange, worrisome place where the closest relationships known can no longer be expected to hold firm. Any change, even to a known, usually secure environment, can be scary.
Cognitively, the child is entering concrete thinking, when things are understood only in their most direct, concrete meaning, and still has no ability to think abstractly. Therefore, ideas about how they “ought” to be don't help. Comfort the child in terms of what they are feeling right now, not what the parent thinks they “should” know, feel, or understand.
And, finally, the child is also still in a primarily egocentric state of mind at this age. The world revolves around them, so this, too, must be their fault. It never hurts to remind him that he has done nothing wrong
What to do
Keep routines as they have been as much as possible.
Remember regression, so be prepared to spend a little time at nursery school before you leave for work, just like you did at day care a few years ago.
Be on time!
In Overnights and transitions, parents should help the child see the markers along the way so that they can guage the time and distance in concrete terms. Identify landmarks, look for dogs or traffic lights, etc. Make the journey familiar and safe by repeatedly pointing out the things they can count on to be there as they move from one location to the other. Make the journey, and their world, predictable and fun. Hansel and Gretel is a great fairy tale for this experience. It's scary, all right, but the Hansel and Gretel mark their way so they know where to go to be safe. You need to do this for your little one: Mark the way, so she knows it's safe.
Play with the child. Next to providing the safety they cannot provide for themselves, entering their world of imagination is the best signal to the child that their parent is truly here- to stay. It means a great deal to the distressed child that his parent values his play, accepts it for whatever it is, and joins in the fun. It'll also make you feel a little better.
Be tolerant of bedtime difficulties, trouble in the dark, etc. Give extra time and support like when they were younger. The world has become darker, and (both) parents supply both the light and the safety. But put it into a context of now: "You're trying so hard. I'm so proud of you, I know you need a little extra help for a little while... soon you'll be able to do this yourself- just like you used to!"
Tell them where you are; for example, "I'll be in my room, getting ready for bed." "I'll be here right at the end of nursery school to get you, and we'll go..."
Explain, explain, explain about visitations. Give all the details. Identify the landmarks, count blocks, telephone poles, etc.
Give him permission to have a good time at Daddy's, grandma's, etc. Talk about what they'll do there.
Use calendars to show concretely what's going to be happening when. .
Psychological Issue: Moving into the world with a secure base behind them.
The child is shifting his attention from home to the playground. Her fear is that the upset at home will undermine her advances in his new world. At worst, she retreats because she's so worried about the support base. Bedwetting, thumb sucking can reappear. Failures can occur at school.
He is old enough to explicitly notice parents' upset- dad's loneliness, mom's struggles with finances, etc., and he worries about them. Where are my parents? Will they hold things steady so I can count on them when I need them? How are they doing (without me)? Reassure him. "Its kind of hard, not having daddy around, but I'm learning! And I'm okay, even if I'm a little sad sometimes."
The child may confuse their wishes and dreams with reality. Girls seem more likely to weave fantasies to comfort themselves, while both boys and girls may throw themselves into activity so as not to think about their worries and anxieties. Judith Wallerstein gives the example of a six yr old girl who told the teacher there was a new baby that she helped her mother care for. At a conference later in the year, the teacher was astonished to learn there was no new baby in the home. The child made it up to give herself a way to be helping mom- in her imagination, at least.
There is a strong tendency for many children to deny what is right in front of them; that is, their parents conflict. Thus, children at this age may blame themselves, but in specific ways. He didn't deliver a message was supposed to, or she was cranky when she went to the store with Dad, and that's why their parents divorced.
What to Do:
Return to normal activities ASAP. Do not allow usual activities, or, if possible, new opportunities, to be missed. When your child fails to do something he has been doing well in the past, understand, don't blame. As always, remember: the foundations of their world have been shaken, and threaten to fall apart even more.
Talk to the child: show your awareness of the stress she's under and your concern and willingness to find ways to help. There is a bit of tightrope to walk here, however. While you want to be understanding and allowing of some slippage, the fact that their parents are divorcing is not an excuse for children giving up. With support, concern, etc., the sooner your child can get himself going in the things he or she needs to do, the better for their immediate and future adjustment. Be clear about your belief and expectation that they can do the jobs they are faced with. "I expect you to pay attention and do your best in school. I know it's not easy, but we're all trying to do our best."
Remind them: They are not responsible for the divorce, no matter what they may think they did or didn't do. The love you and your ex had for them in the beginning is still there, despite the changes you are making with each other.
Psychological Issue: Anger: How am I supposed to move on into what is starting to feel
like me, when you guys can't even stay together like you're supposed to? Don't divorce; stand still and watch me!
At this age, children are becoming rather self-centered, better able to understand cause and effect, better at reading emotions, and moving into more defined separation. They're center stage, parents are in the wings offering support and staying out of the way. Adolescence looms.
As a result, anger is the primary reaction. How could you be so concerned about yourselves and not me? In many cases, even if the family is intact, this leads to the child's knowing criticism of parents' habits, dress, etc. As their morality is developing, they will bring it to bear on their parents, and they may well be vigilant and quite judgmental about your behavior if, in their eyes, it violates 'right behavior.'
This attitude may manifest in the outside world, eg school, or at the parent they hold responsible. This natural tendency to suddenly see what is wrong with adults, exaggerated by the tension of divorce, may bring this critical voice forward where it otherwise would have stayed in the background of best-friend talk, phone conversations, text-messages and e-mail, notes passed in school. Unfortunately, this stance has a great deal of support in the media: movies, music, etc., are geared to strengthening the child's right to criticize, and therefore to insist on making decisions about what to buy, with the disruptive result of legitimizing the child's expression of disdainful anger for the parents who are not serving him properly.
Children this age are better at playing parents off of each other. Because, with their cognitive capacities increasing to the world of ideas, they are able now
to plan more strategically. With the disruption of quick and effective
communication between the parents, the child naturally takes advantage of this
opportunity to try to get what they want.
And yet, along with the anger, this age child is watching her parents carefully to see how you're doing, has great feelings for the distress you're suffering, and will subtly or directly try to help you feel better.
What to Do:
It's important to keep in mind that none of this is necessarily malicious, or indicative of a poor adjustment These are normal behaviors for this age child, and need to be confronted with some understanding that it's a great temptation to try it out. Here, as always, the most effective strategy is collaboration and communication between the parents.
Provide clear limits re: angry acting out. Stay in control.
Remember that the child's hype and exaggerated feelings as they confront you or react to you does not match their deeper belief, or their more enduring feeling. Underneath the harsh voice is the heart of a child who dearly loves their parents.
Reassure them that their turmoil is understood, but don't accept the blame.
Watch, again, for regression, depression. Talk with them when they seem distressed, and get them help if they don't get back on track in a reasonable amount of time.
Psychological Issue: Fear of being out in the world without clear support leads
to panic and precipitous behavior
This panic may express itself in a variety of ways, depending on the child. Released from, or driven by, the weakening of the parental structure, they may rush into precocious, risky behavior. The child may dive into adolescent experimentation well before they are ready to handle it.
The child's ego is not strong enough to manage life's realities without your help. And, right now, she feels you are not available, are not strong enough, are preoccupied. So she's trapped into the other side of the ambivalence: They're not there, so I have to go it alone.
Very often, this age child will simply deny that there is anything different in their lives, because to admit their upset would be giving in to the 'young child' side of their ambivalence, and that would be too much for the part of them that desperately wishes to be able handle all of this, and everything else, on their own.
What to do:
As always, keep the home safe, keep routines. Don't buy into the negative characterizations. Help them use their skills at home. Negotiate about new activities, allowing the freedom you think they can actually handle, and staying firm about the stuff you think they can't.
Talk, but do not burden them with the details of your new relationships, etc. They need to know you're on your feet, care about them as much as ever, insist that they keep in touch, etc.
Psychological Issues: Essentially, the adolescent repeats all of the earlier issues at a new, more profound level. Thus, trust, abandonment, separation: You were supposed to stay put and hold things together till I was ready to leave! How about my relationships; am I going to do the same thing?
And, your response is essentially the same, although, at this age, it may be harder to achieve. Cooperate with each other, talk with your young person, stay firm in your limits, give support and room for appropriate growth, be there in the background despite the apparent display of rejection of any needs.
If necessary, clarify the difference between your "affair," "I was so unhappy and he helped me in so many ways," and their not being ready for sexual activity.
Reaffirm that, despite the difficulties you are experiencing, you know that this time of life is not easy, and you'll be there for them whenever they feel ready to talk with you. Then be patient.