Relationships Quick Answers
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
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
Last update: Tuesday, August 26, 2008