The Effects Of Divorce On Children

Divorce is painful for children. The effects of divorce vary with children’s ages. The effects also depend on the circumstances surrounding the divorce. How your child was doing before the divorce, the kind of help adults are giving, the relationship between you and the other parent, and other factors affect your child’s reactions. While every child is different and may react in different ways to divorce, there are some common reactions by age group and responses from parents that may be helpful.


Children in this age group live in a small world mostly made up of parents and family. They sense the emotional turmoil or distractedness of their parents and are upset by disruptions in their routine and lapses in their care due to their parents’ distress.

Common Reactions

Babies and toddlers may react with crying and fretfulness or they may be listless and unresponsive. They may exhibit sleeping, eating, and digestive problems. Parents may see delays in the baby learning new behaviors or a return to former patterns of behavior as a way of relieving anxiety. Some children in this age group may react with clingy behaviors and be afraid of being separated from you. There may be an increase in your toddler’s temper tantrums, and your child may be confused and sad.

Helpful Responses

    • Talk to, play with, hold, and cuddle your child.
    • Maintain routines and provide predictability and familiarity.
    • Make changes slowly and at a rate to which your child can adjust.
    • Establish one primary home and minimize the number of caretakers.
    • Accept your child’s fears and allow the return to earlier levels of functioning.
    • Give assurances and answer questions simply, sometimes over and over.
    • Promote close, consistent contact with both parents.


This age group is greatly affected by their parents’ divorce. They have difficulty understanding what is happening to their family. Pre-schoolers are very vulnerable because they aren’t based in reality and don’t have some of the supports that older children have.

Common Reactions

Pre-schoolers have a fear of abandonment and even routine separations become traumatic. They may have bad dreams and demand to sleep with you. Children in this age group believe that the world revolves around them, and they may think that they caused the divorce and feel guilty. Pre-schoolers may return to earlier levels of functioning, and they may have to have their security needs met through a greater reliance on or a return to security blankets, stuffed animals, or thumb sucking. This age tries to convince themselves through denial that everything is OK, but their overwhelming anxiety may be expressed through irritability, clinging, whining, increased aggressiveness, and temper tantrums. Parents may also witness a loss of cheerfulness and curiosity in their child. Pre-schoolers may fantasize that the absent parent will return or that parents will reunite.

Helpful Responses

    • Reassure your child of your love and support.
    • Correct any misconception that your child may have about causing the divorce by giving simple, truthful reasons for the divorce and reassurance that the divorce is not your child’s fault.
    • Accept your child’s return to earlier levels of behaviors and recognize that as security increases, the regression will decrease.
    • Promote peaceful, cooperative co-parenting because children in this age group react very strongly to parental conflict.
    • Be tolerant of temper tantrums and use the opportunity to teach your child how to express anger appropriately.
    • Empathize with your child’s wish to have you back together and let it be known that reconciliation is not going to happen and that any behaviors by your child will not cause it to happen.
    • Let your child know that you are sad about the problems divorce causes to help your child feel less isolated and alone in distress.


Children in this age group keenly feel the losses divorce brings. They may be grief-stricken, show depression, and yearn intensely for the parent who has left their daily life. They feel the loss of security of their family structure at a time when they have begun to engage in formal learning and take risks with relationships outside the home.

Common Reactions

Six to eight year olds experience a pervasive sadness often exhibited by crying and sobbing. They find it difficult to concentrate in school or to relate to their playmates. It is hard for them to find ways to distract themselves from their grief. They may withdraw or participate in activities with little enthusiasm. Children in this age group have fears of abandonment and rejection and may feel that they will be replaced by another child or that the parent with whom they spend the majority of their time will leave just as the other parent did. They feel deprived that both parents are not there for them on a daily basis, and this feeling leads to fears of being deprived of food, toys, and other items. They have conflicts of loyalty and feel pulled in two directions by their parents’ separation. Their anger at their parents is usually expressed indirectly by fighting with their peers and siblings, refusing to do homework and chores, or resisting routines, such as going to bed, daycare, et.

Helpful Responses

    • Give your child time to mourn the losses and offer extra love and support.
    • Let your child know that most children want their parents to reconcile and gently explain that you will not be getting back together.
    • Accept that children will be sad and angry and acknowledge their feelings.
    • Be available and let your child know it is OK to talk about what is happening.
    • Help your child find healthy outlets for expressing feelings through drawing, keeping a journal, talking, and physical activity.
    • Establish consistent routines and plan “special” times to give extra attention.
    • Keep your child away from parental conflicts and negative comments about the other parent.
    • Let your child know that it’s OK to love both parents.


Intense anger is the most distinguishing reactions to divorce for children in this age group. Children direct their anger at one or both parents, and the target is usually whomever they blame for the divorce. Their anger also may be an attempt to cover their feelings of sadness and helplessness. They may feel a need to take care of the parent they have identified as the one who is more needy or lonely.

Common Reactions

The anger this age group feels is fully conscious and usually greater than that felt by other age groups. They believe that parents could stay together if they tried hard enough to resolve their differences. They may think that their parents don’t care about their needs. Children of this age may align with one parent over the other, and they usually side with the parent they perceive to be more hut. The divorce makes them feel rejected, powerless, and hurt. Nine to twelve year olds often react to their distress with physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches. They are outraged by their parents’ behavior and feel shame. Children in this age group may refuse to talk about the divorce and may withdraw from friends and activities.

Helpful Responses

    • Show understanding of your child’s anger to help diminish its intensity.
    • Solicit reasons for the anger to resolve issues beyond the divorce itself, e.g., not enough attention from you, resentment about new responsibilities, and not being able to see former friends.
    • Stop destructive behavior and assist your child to find acceptable outlets for the anger, including drawing, writing, warm baths, sports, listening to music, and talking.
    • Do not fuel your child’s anger toward the other parent by allowing your child to be your ally if you are angry or bitter toward that parent.
    • Deal with your child’s physical complaints by explaining it is normal for the body to respond to stress this way and help them find and practice ways to relieve their anxiety.
    • Let them know that although the situation is difficult for all of you, it will get better.
    • Stress the strengths and positive qualities of the other parent because your child’s self-concept depends on the parental images of each of you.
    • Provide firm and consistent parenting with clear expectations and limits for behavior to minimize your child’s attempt to overcome feelings of powerlessness by manipulating, bullying, demanding, disobeying, or being too good.


Even though teenagers are becoming increasingly independent and have support systems outside the family, they are deeply affected by the divorce. The way tat they distance themselves from their families and achieve independence is an important factor in why the impact of divorce can be so great. Some adolescents feel hurried to achieve their independence and may separate too soon emotionally or feel so vulnerable that they regress into less mature behaviors, making it harder from them to become independent.

Common Reactions

Adolescents feel a deep sense of loss and sadness when parents divorce. They have feelings of emptiness and may have chronic fatigue and difficulty concentration. They become preoccupied with the survival of their own relationships and examine their values and concepts about a good marriage because of the fear that their parents’ divorce may foreshadow their own relationships. They feel shame and embarrassment about the divorce, and these feelings intensify when a parent begins dating. Teenagers may withdraw from parents and family to provide themselves distance from the crisis at home. They may level verbal accusations at parents and feel they were let down because parents didn’t make the marriage work. Adolescents may use alcohol, drugs, sexual activity, delinquent behavior, and school failure to test their values and also parents’ concern from them. A loyalty dilemma may arise because of a need to side with one parent. Teenagers worry about money and have concerns about their financial needs and security.

Helpful Responses

    • Let teenagers distance themselves to cope with the divorce while letting them know that you are monitoring their activities and maintaining curfews and house rules.
    • Provide a safe haven so that teens, in their quest for independence, can move away by taking several steps forward and then temporarily move back to the security of the family.
    • Do not overburden your child with many new responsibilities.
    • Be available to talk with your teen and show that you care.
    • Let teenagers know it is okay to love both parents and that they don’t have to choose sides.
    • Encourage children to participate in their usual activities or engage in new ones.
    • Respect their developmental need for involvement with peers and independent activities and recognize that teenagers don’t need or want extended time with either parent.
    • Keep adolescents out of the middle of your conflicts with the other parent.

Helping Children Make a Positive Adjustment

Emotional and behavioral changes are to be expected when divorce occurs. Gradually, these changes tend to subside. If, however, the symptoms are intense, continue for several months, or interfere greatly in your child’s life, your child may require counseling to prevent long-lasting emotional difficulties and promote healthy adjustment.

The most critical factors in helping children make a positive adjustment to divorce are:

1. That children have an ongoing relationship with both parents;

2. That parents top fighting and resolve or minimize their conflicts; and, 

3. That children have a close and nurturing relationship with at least one of their parents.

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