Divorce is hard on everyone. Whether you’re 32 years old or just 2, whether you’re one-half of the once happily married couple or the product of that happy union, divorce isn’t something you typically expect or plan for. And yet,
And if you have kids, their well-being is probably one of your primary concerns. Is there a particular age at which divorce is most traumatic for children? Should you try to make it work “for the kids” until they’re old enough to understand?
The short answer is that divorce affects children of all ages. It’s probably hardest on elementary-age kids, for reasons we’ll outline below. But if you and your partner have determined that it’s not going to work out, it may be best to go your separate ways knowing that kids are resilient and there are strategies you can use to ease the associated (difficult) emotions.
“Don’t worry. They won’t remember it.”
There’s a popular misconception that memory starts at 3. However, researchers have found that memory likely starts earlier, but until we’re older, it’s more like a video that’s constantly being recorded over.
In one eye-opening 2011 study, children as young as 4 were asked to recall their earliest three memories. They were then asked 2 years later to do the same and were also asked about the initial memories they’d brought up in the first interview.
Researchers found that children could remember things from quite early in their lives, but these memories weren’t retained in the youngest ones. Instead, in the second interview, they would recall memories from months later and might even deny experiencing what they brought up in the initial interview.
In other words, your 3-year-old may indeed remember Mom and Dad fighting when they were 2. It might make them upset to recall such incidents. But by the time they’re a little older, they may have no recollection of these fights.
Does that mean babies and toddlers aren’t affected by divorce? Unfortunately, no. Trauma that happens before we reach preschool age can definitely leave its mark. Babies or toddlers who have lived for months or years with two loving and attentive parents may react to divorce by:
- becoming more fussy or inconsolable when one parent is suddenly no longer around
- becoming more clingy or insecure around the parent they live with or around new people
- missing developmental milestones or regressing to former ones (e.g., a 3-year-old who hasn’t used a pacifier in a year may return to it)
And memory aside, because these early years are so formative, these issues can cause later problems.
But there are ways to ease the effects on your baby or toddler.
For example, you should set and maintain a consistent routine as much as is possible. It’s well established that this age thrives on routine, so if your little one lives with Parent 1 and sees Parent 2 every weekend, try to keep that up with as little disruption as possible.
If you had certain routines before the divorce, talk with your partner (if you can) about keeping up these routines in both households.
Sometimes the divorce gets ugly or results in one parent essentially exiting the child’s life. But know that creating a loving, secure, and supportive environment where your child is exposed to new people and new situations in emotionally safe ways will go a long way.
It may be tough for a while. But this is a very adaptable age.
Between the ages of 3 and 5, children are developing more of an understanding of the abstract. They’re asking lots of questions and figuring out how they fit into the world around them.
That doesn’t mean they understand the concept of divorce. In fact, they’re likely relying heavily on the security and stability of their parents’ presence as they branch out into new and unknown experiences and feelings.
But if the parents are fighting, children this age may feel strongly that their world is being rocked in scary ways. A sense that all isn’t OK with their parents may lead your child to react with crying, fear, and innocent insistence that you just stop fighting and go back to the “way you were.”
Preschoolers may also feel that things are their fault. They may have trouble sleeping or want more control. They’re likely dealing with so many emotions that they really don’t know how to sort.
Things may actually improve after the divorce itself, when stability returns to the home(s).
The trauma of the events before the divorce can leave lasting memories and confusing emotions. But once a routine is established, your little one can start to feel in control again — even if all they talk about for a while is you and their other parent getting back together.
To ease the negative impact at this age, try to keep things with your child’s other parent as civil as possible, at least in the presence of your child.
Keep loud fighting to a minimum, and avoid bad-mouthing each other and making your little one feel like they have to choose sides. (There may indeed be a more “at fault” parent, but your preschooler doesn’t need to know that right now.)
This is arguably the toughest age for children to deal with the separation or divorce of their parents.
That’s because they’re old enough to remember the good times (or good feelings) from when you were a united family. They’re also old enough to understand more complex feelings around conflict and fault, though not fully.
You may hear questions like:
- If you love me, why can’t you stay together?
- What did I do?
- Is this because I don’t always do what I’m told?
- I promise I’ll be a good kid.
- Does Dad/Mom not love me anymore? Is that why they want to leave?
Notice the pattern: These questions all revolve around the child themselves. They’re wondering about their role in the divorce and tend to make it more about them than about what could be going on between two adults.
These feelings can lead to depression in your kiddo — short- or long-term. And the effects of what happens during these years can impact future emotional well-being. Your child may become withdrawn, uncommunicative, and anxious.
Alternatively, they may lash out in anger at you or their other parent or play one of you off the other. This is where you may hear stereotypical phrases like “I want to live with Dad!” or “Mom lets me do [fill-in-the-blank]!” Your child’s teachers may comment about your child’s relationships with peers or adults.
So what helps? As with younger kids, it’s important that you and your soon-to-be-ex try to be amiable in front of your elementary-school-aged child. Try to minimize conflict and work out divorce or separation details behind closed doors or with the help of a mediator or divorce counselor.
Of course, the best case scenario is that both parents remain actively involved in the child’s life as loving supporters. This isn’t always possible or advised, though. If you’re in a situation of abuse or domestic violence, the best thing for your child may indeed be the absence of one parent.
Children of this age will often come to terms with even a traumatic divorce in hindsight as they grow in maturity. Getting them counseling through a professional therapist and emotional support through family and friends can be a huge help during and after the divorce.
Your pediatrician can be an invaluable resource when it comes to finding options.
There are also books specifically for children of divorced parents. Read age-appropriate ones to your younger child or offer books to your independent reader and ask if they want to talk about what they read.
By the time your kids are teenagers, they’re much more likely to understand the underlying feelings that lead to divorce or separation.
In fact, if home life is in turmoil, they may even see the final split as a relief and gain a sense of resolution. They’re also less likely to feel like they’re at fault for the divorce or that togetherness at any cost is best.
Teenagers are often self-centered, but unlike elementary age kids, their world more typically revolves around their life outside the home. So they don’t question their parents’ love for them as much as they just want to get on with their lives.
They may worry about how the divorce will affect their social situation (e.g., whether they’ll have to move away from their friends) and may idealize the past. But they can recognize divorce as having the potential to make things better.
In general, acceptance comes more readily. But remember that your teenager — especially your younger teen — is still a child who hasn’t fully matured in their thinking. Be sure you have the tools in place to help them cope with a new reality. You may want to let their teachers know about the transition.
Talk honestly with your teen about their thoughts and feelings. Listen. Ask them if they want to talk with a counselor.
Divorce isn’t easy for people of any age, and it can have lasting impacts on your children — and you.
Don’t forget that in all this, your kiddos need you, so you need to take care of yourself. See a therapist with divorce experience, lean on friends and family, and join online or in-person support groups. Self-care is especially important.
And while parental separation can cause trauma, so can turmoil in the home. If you’re wondering if you should stick it out until your kid is 18, ask yourself about the home environment:
- Is it healthy for you and your children?
- Is reconciliation possible?
- Are you and your partner open to marriage counseling?
If the answer is “no” to these questions, remember that kids are resilient, and sometimes the best solution is to part ways and commit to a co-parenting routine that restores harmony as much as possible.