Your Child and Divorce
What to Expect at Each Developmental Stage

At each developmental stage of your child's growth, there are specific things for you to know and do to provide help so that she can successfully deal with your divorce. The information below highlights what your child may experience, signs of distress and suggestions for things you can do to help.

Developmental Stage: Infants (Birth to 18 months)

An infant's primary developmental task is to learn to trust people. This means learning what it means to be part of a family.

    What Infants Experience in Divorce
  • At this developmental stage, infants have no way of understanding what is happening.
  • They cannot talk about what is happening.
  • They commonly show signs of distress when they are exposed to parents who are arguing.
  • They are completely dependent upon their parents. When a parent is unable to provide adequate care, it causes distress and discomfort for an infant.
  • When day-to-day routines are changed, or familiar people are no longer around, infants are likely to feel insecure and react by being fussy.

    Signs of Distress
  • Your infant may seem agitated or nervous. This may show up as extreme fussiness, or the opposite behavior - listlessness.
  • Your infant may react to your distress by crying or acting fussy.
  • Your infant may be delayed in achieving key milestones for this developmental stage such as rolling over, sitting up, reaching for things etc.
  • You may notice significant changes in appetite, sleep patterns and/or personality that do not fit with the norms for this particular developmental stage.

    What Parents can do to Help
  • Maintain a consistent routine for your child.
  • Spend time holding, rocking, hugging and talking with your infant.
  • Shower your infant with love and smiles.
  • Keep regular appointments with your infant's medical provider.
  • Make sure that your infant does not go more than two to three days without seeing the other parent.
  • Take good care of yourself.

Developmental Stage: Toddlers (18 months to 3 years)

A toddler's main developmental task is to learn to be a unique and separate person. This is usually a challenging stage because toddlers are torn between wanting to explore and be in the safety of a parent's lap at the same time. Toddlers try very hard to be noticed by their parents and seek their approval.

    What Toddlers Experience in Divorce
  • They are very aware of parents who are fighting and respond by acting out or trying to make the arguing parents stop.
  • Toddlers are dependent upon adults to meet all of their needs and feel unsafe and stressed when a parent is unable to take care of them.
  • Toddlers are likely to think that they are the cause of parental arguments and feel guilty and responsible for the tension in the home. This is called magical thinking and is a normal developmental stage. Children at this age don't have the cognitive ability nor the vocabulary to be able to talk about this or understand that they are not the cause of the argument.
  • Routine and predictability provide security. When these two important things are interrupted, toddlers can feel uneasy, stressed and even afraid.

    Signs of Distress
  • Regressing to an earlier developmental stage. For example they may have bathroom accidents or want to go back to wearing diapers, want their bottle or pacifier again, want to go back to sleeping in a crib.
  • They may withdraw from people and act sad or lonely.
  • Their normal patterns of sleeping and eating may change significantly.
  • They may develop fears about things that they normally are not afraid of.

    What Parents can do to Help
  • Maintain a consistent routine.
  • Reassure your toddler that you love her.
  • Avoid punishing him for acting like a baby. Instead point out the advantages of being a big boy.
  • Don't force hugs on a child who is pulling away. Be aware of when your child is reaching out for your affection and respond with hugs and kisses.
  • Set limits and don't let your toddler run the show. Toddlers actually love rules and need to know that they are expected to follow them.
  • Arrange parenting time so that your toddler has frequent time with each parent. Toddlers should go no longer than 3-5 days without seeing the other parent.

Developmental Stage: Preschoolers (3-5 years)

This is a developmental stage when children learn many new skills. They can talk, make their own friends and begin to take care of themselves. They are developing their own personalities and independence. Preschoolers love to be helpful. Everything for them is play. Magic and dreams are real to children at this developmental stage. Even though they appear to be quite grown up, preschoolers still do not have the cognitive development to understand abstract concepts like time, reality, or what makes things happen (cause and effect). Preschoolers believe that the world revolves around them and they can make things happen. This is called magical thinking.

    What Preschoolers Experience in Divorce

  • They may believe that they are the cause of the divorce.
  • They may feel frightened by the immense changes to their world and fear that they will be abandoned by one or both parents.
  • They may fear that they will never again see the parent who moved out of the home.
  • They may try to magically wish the divorce away.

    How to Recognize Signs of Distress
  • Your preschooler may say things that indicate he feels responsible for the divorce.
  • He may become clingy and want to stick close to you rather go out and explore the world.
  • You may notice regression in developmental milestones. She may experience wetting the bed, sucking her thumb, using baby talk, temper tantrums etc.
  • He may become bossy and try to control everyone and everything. This is likely your child's attempt to create security out of the chaos of the divorce.
  • You may notice increased anger from your preschooler.
  • They may not want to play with their friends. They may seem sad and/or lonely.

    What Parents can do to Help
  • Provide predictable and consistent routines. Try not to make too many changes at one time.
  • When you leave your child at daycare or with a sitter, reassure her that you will be back and give her a specific time. Make sure you keep your word.
  • Provide opportunities for your preschooler to talk about his feelings. Reading books together is a great way to give information and open the door to a discussion.
  • Reassure your child that you love her and nothing will ever change that.
  • If your preschooler is having nightmares, talk about it with him. Reassure him that he is safe and you will always take care of him.
  • Keep the other parent informed about events in your child's life. Make sure that you both attend special events.
  • Let your child's teachers or daycare providers know about the divorce. Ask what behaviors they may be noticing in your child and together talk about strategies to help your child through this big life transition.

Developmental Stage: Early Elementary (6 to 9 years)

Family is very important to children in this developmental stage. Family wholeness rather than family happiness is where early elementary age children find the security they need to successfully venture out into their world of school and friends.

    What Early Elementary Age Children Experience in Divorce
  • They may have very strong feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, and/or loneliness.
  • They will miss the other parent when they aren't together.
  • They may have difficulty concentrating at school. Grades may suffer as a result.
  • They may fear that one parent will stop loving them. At this age, children are likely to test this fear by acting out just to see if the behavior will drive a parent away.
  • Somemtimes children side with one parent. It is quite normal at this developmental stage for children to side with the parent they think is the most needy.
  • Children may try to provide emotional support for a parent who is suffering. This puts a tremendous burden on a child.

    How to Recognize Signs of Distress
  • A significant change in grades or attitude about school.
  • Spending a great deal of time moping around, crying frequently or otherwise acting sad.
  • An increase in physical symptoms like frequent headaches, stomach aches etc.
  • A lack of enthusiasm.

    What Parents can do to Help
  • Accept your child's feelings no matter what they may be. Be a good listener and be available to listen.
  • Never say demeaning things about the other parent in front of your child.
  • Set a good example for how adults can take good care of themselves.
  • Let your child know that you want him to love and spend time with their other parent.
  • Don't encourage your child's hopes that you and the other parent will get back together.
  • Help your child see that even though your family has changed, it is still a family.
  • Tell and show your child that you love her.
  • Do all that you can to keep the other parent involved. This is an important time for your child's development of self-esteem and identity. She needs both parents to accomplish these tasks well.

Developmental Stage: Later Elementary (9 to 12 years)

This is a developmental stage when children become much more independent from their parents. Friends take on an even more important role. At this developmental stage, your child is likely to be concerned about how the divorce will affect his social life at school and with friends.

    What Later Elementary Age Children Experience in DivorceConflict over what they want for themselves and others.
  • They may feel torn between parents.
  • They are most likely to feel anger - usually directed at one parent or the other for messing up my life.
  • They may feel ashamed or embarrassed about the divorce. Any public display of parental disagreement is extremely uncomfortable for children at this age.
  • They often worry about their parents and feel tremendous responsibility for their well-being.

    How to Recognize Signs of Distress
  • Acting as though the divorce is of no consequence to them.
  • Boys may have more problems than girls at this age. These problems usually show up in actions like poor school performance or getting into fights.
  • On the other hand, girls may bend over backwards to try to please. (Watch out for this because it is easy to assume that everything is OK when it really isn't.)
  • There may be an increase in physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches or general malaise.
  • Premature sexual activity.
  • Taking on the adult role in the family. There is a huge cost for children who take on this adult role. It typically forces them to side with one parent (and ultimately feel guilt for doing so.) Children also feel angry when they are forced to choose between the two most important people in their lives.

    What Parents can do to Help
  • Model for your children how to take good care of yourself and manage your feelings. Remain in the role of adult.
  • Encourage your children to be physically active.
  • Make a point of staying aware of what is going on with school and friends.
  • Talk with your child about what is happening and how she is feeling. Be careful to not badmouth the other parent or divulge adult information.
  • Encourage your child to talk with someone other than yourself (friend of the family, school counselor, therapist etc.) and help facilitate it.
  • Create an environment around your child where he is able to be a child.

Developmental Stage: Adolescence (13 to 18 years)The main developmental task for adolescents is getting themselves ready to leave home and live responsibly on their own. While they may function in many ways like adults, they are not yet adults. There are still developmental milestones to be met in emotional and moral development. Teens are often not able to look realistically at the future. They lack real-world experience and may still believe that bad things only happen to other people.

    What Adolescents Experience in Divorce
  • They may feel anxiety about leaving home.
  • They may feel responsible for the divorce.
  • They may believe that the parent who has moved away no longer loves them.
  • They may worry about their plans for the future and have concern that there isn't enough money to carry them out.
  • They may feel rejected or neglected.
  • They may feel frightened or burdened by a parent's neediness or confusion.
  • They may resent their parents for messing up their life. They are also likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed about the divorce.

    How to Recognize Signs of Distress
  • Leaving home to be out on their own earlier than planned.
  • Talk of delaying their own plans so they can be at home to help out.
  • Fear about leaving home because there will be no home to come back to.
  • Being extremely negative and/or critical of one or both parents.
  • Increased sexual behavior.
  • Increased aggression.
  • Substance abuse, suspension from school, getting into fights, running away from home, sudden drop in school performance, withdrawal from activities and friends, self-injuring behaviors, getting into trouble with the law.

    What Parents can do to Help
  • Model for your children how to take care of yourself and deal with your feelings.
  • Offer love, encouragement and support.
  • Remain in the role of parent even when it may be tempting to be a friend to your teen. She has many friends but only two parents. She still needs you to be her parent. State your expectations clearly and set consistent boundaries.
  • Encourage your teen to go on with his life. Don't encourage or allow him to postpone his plans because of you.
  • Be discreet about your sexual activities. Be the kind of role model that teaches responsible sexual behavior.
  • Give your teen your verbal and emotional permission to know and love her other parent. Encourage her to spend time with her other parent.
  • Tell your teen often that you love him.
  • Allow your teen input regarding the schedule. Be prepared to make some changes in the schedule as your child becomes an adolescent. This is especially relevant if you have had a parenting plan in place for several years.
  • Don't take it personally if your teen chooses to spend more time with the other parent. In this developmental stage it isn't unusual for kids to want to spend more time with their same-sex parent.
  • If you are the parent who has moved out of the house, remain involved as a parent. Make efforts to stay in touch with your teen through phone calls, e-mail, attending their assorted functions, and getting together for meals.

Keep in mind that the signs of distress listed for each of these developmental stages are based on what the research tells us about the average child of each particular age. Your child may experience your divorce quite differently. As always, rely on what you know to be true about your own child. Use this information about child development simply as a guide.

Also keep in mind that it is very likely that your children will have questions about and reactions to your divorce with each developmental stage that they enter. Moving from one stage to the next often brings questions. That means you are probably going to have many conversations with your child about your divorce over the course of your child's life. Talking with your children

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