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How does the age of a child affect the way that children react to the divorce of their parents?

Each child will react somewhat differently to divorce or separation. Let me tell you about some of the more common behavior responses.

Very little is known about the effects of divorce on children younger than 2 years of age. When the bonds between parent and child are severely disrupted, there may be a problem. However, very young children do not necessarily suffer just because a divorce has occurred. Both parents can stay actively involved in child rearing, or one parent can maintain a strong, healthy relationship with the child.

Children from 3 to 5 years of age who go through divorce tend to be fearful and resort to immature or aggressive behavior. They might return to security blankets or old toys. Some may have lapses in toilet training. These types of behavior rarely last for more than a few weeks. Most children are confused about what is happening or about why mom or dad has left. Children often deny that anything has changed.

Preschoolers may also become less imaginative and cooperative in their play. Children may spend more time playing by themselves than with friends. They also may show more anxiety, depression, anger, and apathy in their play and in their interactions with both children and adults. Socially, preschoolers tend to spend more time seeking attention and the nearness of adults. At the same time, they may resist adult suggestions and commands. Some children become much more aggressive.

On the positive side, preschool children also try to understand the situation. They attempt to bring some order to their world by trying to explain to themselves what is happening and by trying to be well behaved. Though it takes some time, most children gradually understand the situation and adjust to it. In the short term, there do not seem to be any effects on the academic achievement of children. They are likely to do just as well in school as they did before the divorce.

Children 6 to 8 years old have some understanding of what the divorce means. With their better sense of what is taking place, these children are able to deal with what is happening. Many young school-age children experience deep grief over the breakup of the family. Some children are fearful and yearn for the absent parent. If the mother has custody, boys tend to behave aggressively toward her. Many children feel conflicts in loyalty to one parent or the other, even if the parents made no effort to make the child take sides.

Older school-age children - ages 9 to 12 - try to understand the divorce and keep their behavior and emotions under control. While they may have feelings of loss, embarrassment, and resentment, these children actively involve themselves in play and activities to help manage these feelings. They may make up games and act out make-believe dramas concerning their parents' divorce. These activities seem to help the child cope with the situation. Anger is perhaps the most intense emotion felt by this group of children. This anger may be aimed at one parent or at both parents. These children may also be more easily drawn into choosing one parent over the other. Children who become drawn into struggles between the parents tend to have more difficulties.

While adolescents understand the divorce situation better than younger children do, they too experience some difficulties adjusting. Many teens feel that they are being pushed into adulthood with little time for a transition from childhood. They may feel a loss of support in handling emerging sexual and aggressive feelings. In some cases, adolescents may even feel that they are in competition with their parents when they see them going on dates and becoming romantically involved. Sometimes, teens have grave doubts about their own ability to get married or stay married.

Many adolescents seem to mature more quickly following a divorce. They take on increased responsibilities in the home, show an increased appreciation of money, and gain insight into their own relationships with others. On the other hand, adolescents may be drawn into the role of taking care of the parent and fail to develop relationships with peers.

Are there any particular signs that teachers or caregivers should be aware of that signal a child is having difficulty due to changes in their families?

The signs and symptoms in children when they are going through their parents' divorce are similar to the reactions we see to other stressful events. The most important sign is any significant change in a child's usual pattern of behavior. Some children will react by being easily angered, and others will react by withdrawing from the usual peer activities.

Let me mention some of the common reactions teachers or caregivers may see in children experiencing divorce. Some of these are more likely to occur in younger children, and some are more likely in older children. Young children are more likely to show regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking, increased whining, difficulty making transitions, and increased need to be with a teacher or other caregiver. Older children are more likely to be disobedient, to talk back, and to be destructive. All children are likely to have some new fears about where their parents are or if they will see parents again. Many of these children will have trouble sleeping; be unusually quiet or withdrawn; complain about headaches, stomachaches, and other symptoms of illness; and be distractible and restless. There also may be significant declines in school performance, tardiness, absences, and difficulties getting along with peers. Few children will show all of these signs, but almost all children will show some of these symptoms, especially when there are significant events at home such as a parent moving out, an appearance in court, and general disruptions in the usual home routine.



Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., Former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri







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Last update: Tuesday, August 26, 2008




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