Helping Children Cope with Divorce

When parents decide to divorce, the decision can be difficult for children to cope with and understand. Children may react to the news very differently depending on their age. For example, a preschooler may have questions about who is going to feed the family pet or if they are still going to be able to play with their neighbor friend.  But a teen may have questions about what happened in their parents relationship or if they will still be able to attend college.

Though many children ask questions, a child’s reaction goes beyond just the questions they ask; it also includes their behavior and feelings. Here are some common reactions to divorce (listed by age group) to help parents know what to expect and when their child may need additional help.

Preschool

(3-5 years old)

Preschoolers often have fears of being abandoned by one of their parents or other family members. Parents can help preschoolers cope with divorce by continuing a daily routine and maintaining consistent discipline with both parents. A preschooler may need additional help if he/she is having persistent separation anxiety or shows developmental regression for a significant period of time.

Common behaviors include:

  • clinging and fearful behavior
  • sadness
  • aggression
  • regression in development
  • perfect behavior

 

School Age

(6-11 years old)

School age children will often try to find someone to blame—either themselves or their parent(s)—for the divorce. They may feel rejected or lonely as the divorce nears. Parents can help school age children cope with divorce by both parents being involved in the child’s regular care, avoiding blaming each other for their differences, and/or helping the child to defuse their anger. A school age child may need additional help if he/she is experiencing a decrease in school performance, complete rejection of one parent, loss of interest in friends or activities, and/or when many changes happen as a result of the divorce such as changing schools, leaving friends, not seeing relative or family members as often.

Common behaviors include:

  • crying
  • anger
  • acting out
  • conflicting loyalties between parents
  • hostility toward one or both parents
  • asking the parents for reconciliation

 

Teens

(12-18 years old)

Teens will often feel responsible for family members such as siblings or their single parent. They may be concerned about the loss of family closeness and how the divorce will change their future. Parents can help teens cope with divorce by maintaining a parent role with their teen, and /or limiting the teen’s involvement in parent conflicts and divorce details. Teens may need additional help if they are experiencing a persistent decrease in school performance, have signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, start abusing substances, and/or have persistent acting out or promiscuity behaviors.

Common behaviors include:

  • anger
  • hostility
  • early or late development of independence
  • concerns about their role in their romantic relationships

 

Overall, children are resilient to the situation and circumstances around divorce. However, the more parents understand about their child’s experience during a divorce, the more likely the child will feel supported and may reduce possible concerning behaviors and problems.

 

 

Jennifer Wilmoth, LAMFT

Jwilmoth@ GROWcounseling.com

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