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Feature Article


Divorce and Infants

Kim Leon, Ph.D., Former Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia

Infants and Divorce (Ages 0-8 months)

Infants do not understand divorce. However, infants are affected by changes in their parents' feelings and behavior. Infants do pick up on adults' emotions and respond to them. Following a divorce, parents may become temporarily depressed and less responsive to their infant. Young infants do not have much control over their own emotions. Their feelings are influenced by their parents' feelings. When a parent acts worried or sad around an infant, the infant is likely to feel worried or sad. Infants cannot tell adults how they feel, so adults must interpret infants' behavior. Infants may act more fussy and difficult to comfort, or seem uninterested in people or things when their parents are upset.

Until about 4-6 months of age, infants don't understand that things or people they can't see still exist. It is "out of sight, out of mind" for very young infants. Even when infants learn that things they can't see are still there, they don't remember things for a long time. It is hard for infants to remember and form close bonds with parents they do not see often. Between 6 and 8 months, infants develop stranger anxiety. They may act fearful or anxious around unfamiliar people. After divorce, an infant may see one parent less often than before, so they may show stranger anxiety around that parent. Infants usually feel most comfortable around both parents if they have frequent contact with both parents following divorce.

Older Infants and Divorce (8 months-18 months)

Many infants begin to show separation distress some time between 8 and 12 months of age. Infants may cry, scream, or cling when a parent is leaving. It is very hard for an infant to be separated from a parent, especially for a long period of time (overnight). Separation is hard for infants because they have such strong feelings for the parent. They want to be with the parent all the time and they don't understand why they can't. It is also normal for a baby to prefer one parent over the other, typically the parent who cares for him or her the most. When parents divorce, infants may experience more separations and feel less secure. You may notice an increase in your infant's separation distress during the divorce process.

Sometimes parents of an infant divorce and one parent drops out of the child's life. If this happens, your child won't remember the other parent, but will probably become curious about the other parent. Provide short, simple, honest answers to your child's questions, such as "Your dad/mom and I couldn't get along, so he/she went live somewhere else." Avoid saying negative things about the other parent, but reassure your child that the other parent's absence is not your child's fault. For example, you might say, "I don't know why your mom/dad is not around, but I know it has nothing to do with you. " Reassure your child that you will always love and take care of him or her. Help your child form close relationships with other adults who can be role models and sources of support.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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