In 2020, about 944,000 marriages ended in divorce in the U.S., according to the National Center of Health Statistics, CDC.
Moreover, a significant proportion of these couples have children. Roughly half of all children in the United States witness the end of their parents’ marriage, each dealing with this grief in their own way.
When mom and dad split up, this can be one of the most potent emotional upheavals for a child, regardless of their age. Both a newborn and a teenager react to this event in about the same way – misunderstanding, fear of the future, fear of losing essential support in life.
Simultaneously, there are certain differences in how the parents’ divorce affects children of specific age categories, and these details are worth taking into account.
The Impact of Divorce on Toddlers
Children under three years old are just beginning to get to know the world, and therefore are in dire need of a sense of security and consistency provided by the family.
A calm and safe environment is all they need. Mother and father teach the kids facets of behavioral development, due to which children begin to imitate adults and learn to behave as society expects of them. Parents’ presence is not only desirable during this period but mandatory.
However, a child under three does not know how to express their feelings and emotions verbally. They begin to demonstrate what they feel through agitated and uncontrollable behavior.
When mom and dad break up, toddlers may experience the following problems:
- difficulty falling asleep and sleeping
- enuresis (incontinence at night);
- whims, irritability, tearfulness;
- difficulties with nutrition and digestion;
- obsessive fear of being alone, the requirement for an adult to always be there.
The impact of Divorce on Children Aged Three to Five
The general observation is that preschoolers experience parental divorce as acutely as possible (though, of course, things vary case-by-case).
During this period, the child’s psychological state is shaped by their emotional background.
At this age, children fantasize a lot, gradually determining their own outlook on life. They shape their unique world and believe that their parents will always be there to protect them if the need arises.
As a rule, for kids in this age group, the parent of the opposite sex is of most significant importance. And psychological studies support the belief that people tend to seek romantic partners who resemble their opposite-sex parents physically and emotionally.
According to Edward Kruk, Ph.D., President of the International Council on Shared Parenting and the author of many books, “Younger children see things from their own perspective and tend to see themselves as the cause of events. They often blame themselves for their parents’ divorce.”
During the considered period, as a result of parents’ dissolution, children can:
- express a total refusal (from eating, sleeping, playing, going to kindergarten, going for a walk, etc.);
- show signs of decreased self-esteem;
- behave defiantly.
Besides, they can often get sick for no apparent reason, stop showing interest in what they have recently been fond of. Kids this age sometimes create a fictional world in their games inhabited by aggressive characters – this is how they try to overcome their fears.
The Impact of Divorce in Middle Childhood Years
Children from six to nine years old very strongly identify themselves with their parents. It is by watching them that boys and girls build their own models of behavior and relationships with others.
During the period described, parents for children are something single, indivisible. When a family breaks up and one parent leaves, the child feels terrified, as if the second parent can leave them too. This fear can manifest itself in:
- increased anxiety;
- a feeling of helplessness, deception.
Sometimes, parental separation leads to primary school-age children showing signs similar to those of autism spectrum disorder. Many children begin to ask mom and dad not to split up.
The Impact of Divorce on Children Aged Ten to Twelve
At 10-12 years old, the child’s world is in a borderline state. On the one hand, they are no longer babies, but, on the other hand, they cannot yet be called teenagers. The child’s psyche is distinguished by manifestations of black and white morality, extreme polarity.
Thus, as the child already has their own opinion, listening to the parents’ quarrels, they often decide to side with one of them.
The parents’ task is to prevent it. The spouses are better off arranging a peaceful uncontested divorce (i.e., avoid court battles), to not alienate the child against the second parent, and agree on co-parenting if possible.
As Bob Butterworth, the CEO of the leading online divorce form preparation service CompleteCase, says, “It is essential not to succumb to emotions and prevent new conflicts that often occur when the couple contests the case. Although CompleteCase is not a law firm, we can connect our clients to trusted attorneys to ensure each couple can file for a peaceful uncontested divorce even if they have minor children.”
If the non-custodial parent is ceasing to be engaged in the child’s life like it used to be, teens consider this as betrayal, lack of love.
They believe that if the mom and dad really love them, everything should return to “normal.” That is why both ex-spouses must remain full-time parents. They should show the child that their relationship is their own business, yet it does not affect their attitude towards their beloved son or daughter.
The Impact of Divorce on Adolescent Children
Teenagers are complicated individuals looking for their place in the world. Psychologists note that their personality is developing rapidly at this time and seems to be being born again. This is a kind of crisis, which is important to go through without unnecessary traumas.
However, a family breakdown can be a severe challenge for a person at this age.
A teenager will not react calmly to the news that their familiar world is crumbling. Usually, they begin to blame either the father or mother for this furiously. But it also happens that they protest against both parents at the same time.
After the divorce of mom and dad, a teenager may experience difficulties adapting to everyday life and change their ideas about loyalty, love, and what a family should be. It can also be difficult for them to develop positive resolution skills for conflicts with the opposite sex.
In most cases, parents’ divorce hurts children. But, it may indeed be a more reasonable alternative than growing up with toxic parents who are unhappy together. Divorce can be regarded as a blessing if it frees everyone from this hostile environment. Instead, a child may get two homes where there is no constant arguing.
However, for divorce to improve the conditions for a child’s personality development and prevent the negative impact of marital conflicts on their psyche, parents should do their best to continue to be there for their child.
Mom and dad must understand their responsibility before their son or daughter, which does not stop with the end of the marriage.
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