Helping Kids Through Divorce: An Age-Appropriate Guide To Understanding Your Child's Needs

Photo: getty
mom holding the hands of two children

Helping kids through a divorce is something parents have to be prepared for. Going through a divorce is challenging and upsetting enough for adults, but it can be equally confusing and stressful for children of all ages.

Typical responses in the early stages of divorce include sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, confusion, and loyalty conflicts.

How parents handle the conflict between one another — and their ability to minimize their children’s exposure to the conflict — significantly decreases the negative effects of divorce on children.

Also, there are other factors that mitigate the negative effect of divorce on children, which can have a positive impact on children’s adjustment to divorce, including:

Competent parenting
Reduced fighting and encapsulated conflict between the parents
Parallel or cooperative co-parenting arrangements
Regular access and communication with both parents
Limited family transitions
Maintaining close relationships between children and both parents
Allowing children to have a voice in individualized parenting plans

RELATED: 9 Things Kids With Divorced Parents Desperately Want You To Know

This seems like a tall order, but with the assistance of a family therapist, you can successfully manage and thrive with the changes.

While divorce may be challenging and overwhelming at times, you can create new family traditions and create a more positive relationship with your child and maximize your time together with these new norms.

Understanding your child’s needs and feelings related to their development can help you better support your child and help them successfully adjust and navigate the many changes in their lives.

Here's an age-appropriate guide on helping kids through divorce.

Infants (0-2 years)

Infants are dependent on parents for meeting all their needs and this is the period where attachments form with primary caregivers.

Babies and young toddlers may exhibit more irritability, such as crying and fussing. You may notice changes in sleep patterns, napping, and other routines, as well as an increase in nervousness and fearfulness, especially if a new adult moves in.

Keep normal schedules and routines. Reassure infants of your continued presence with physical affection and loving words.

Don't make major changes to routines, sleep situations, or caregivers, and gradually introduce any new adult friends.

Toddlers (2-5 years)

At this stage, toddlers are developing more independence and verbal skills to express needs and feelings.

They may have difficulty separating from their parents and may experience loss of contact with one parent as abandonment.

Toddlers may be anxious about their needs being met or have the sense that they are responsible for the separation. You may see regressed behavior, such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking, and they may express anger towards one or both parents.

Older toddlers may experience nightmares and exhibit more anxiety at bedtime, in addition to seeking more physical contact. Tantrums and irritability may increase.

Create a consistent routine and offer physical and verbal reassurances of your love. Try to spend more time with your child when preparing to separate, such as arriving 10 to 20 minutes earlier when dropping off your child at child care.

Parents should allow for some regressed behavior and show compassion for their child's distress, remembering the newly mastered skills will return. Unless abuse is present, allow frequent contact with both parents.

Preschool and Elementary Years (5-8)

Preschoolers recognize that one parent no longer lives with them anymore. Elementary school children begin to understand that divorce means their parents will no longer be married and live together.

They are also focused on developing peer relationships and moral development progresses.

Preschoolers may blame themselves for the separation or divorce and may exhibit signs of sadness and grieving due to the absence of one parent.

Children may have fantasies of parental reunification and may worry about changes in their daily lives. You may see anger and aggression toward the parent they "blame."

Behavioral problems and changes in eating or sleeping patterns are not uncommon.

Repeatedly reassure your child that it's not their fault for the divorce. Reassure and repeat often who will be taking care of them and how their needs will be met.

Encourage as much time as possible with each parent and be supportive of the child’s ongoing relationship with the other parent. Provide opportunities to express their feelings and learn coping skills.

Create a calendar that the child can easily see and access to know where they are going every day and with which parent. Give permission to love each parent.

Encourage frequent contact with both parents and provide outlets such as extracurricular activities, where your child can detach from parental problems.

Gently remind your child that the divorce is final and that the parents will not get back together again.

RELATED: What You Can Do As A Heartbroken Parent To Lessen The Effects Of Divorce On Your Children

Pre-teen Years (9-12)

Pre-teens understand what divorce means but may have a hard time accepting the reality of the changes it brings to the family. Their focus is on fitting in with peers and they may still blame themselves for the divorce.

Parents may hear more physical complaints from their pre-teen children. The kids may even withdraw from longtime friends and favorite activities.

During this age period, children are more likely to ally with a parent or be alienated from one parent. They may make one parent all good and the other bad and are more likely to take sides and blame one parent.

Feelings of abandonment may also surface.

Parents can give their children permission to love both parents and provide opportunities to express their feelings. Maintain open lines of communication and reassurance of your love and continued involvement.

As much as possible, both parents need to stay involved in your child’s life, such as their friends, school progress, and extracurricular activities.

Encourage expression of both positive and negative feelings, and discuss ways to cope with change.

Teen Years (13-18)

Teenagers are solidifying their identity and their sense of self in relation to society.

Teens may start to worry about adult matters, such as the family’s financial stability. They may start feeling obligated to take on more adult responsibility, such as with younger siblings.

They may exhibit intense anger and may act out in uncharacteristic ways, exhibiting high-risk behaviors like drug or alcohol use.

Your teen may be confused about their own beliefs concerning love, marriage, and family. They may worry about future relationships. There's a sense of growing up too soon.

Teens may place peer needs above family and may not want to visit one parent. There may be a sense of embarrassment about the divorce and de-idealizing of one or both parents.

Provide consistent limits balanced with increased freedom and choices.

Allow your child to have input about visitation, but not be burdened by having to decide parenting time arrangements or putting them in the position of telling one parent what they want for visitation.

Avoid using teenage children as confidants and plan time for yourself with adult friends and family members. Be understanding of their need to spend time with friends and take a break from parental conflict and discussions of the divorce.

Give children advance notice of who is attending their events, such as sporting events, and be sensitive to their input, especially if you plan to take a new partner.

Honor family rituals and routines as much as possible, such as movie nights and traditional holiday events. Encourage contact with each parent and make both homes comfortable and familiar for the teen.

Teens also need sensitivity and flexibility on both the parents' part.

Divorces present challenges for families but with the support of a family therapist, the challenges can become more manageable.

Learning these techniques will make it easier for you and your family to cope through this challenging time.

RELATED: 10 Healing Ways To Help Your Child Cope After A Devastating Divorce

Monica Ramunda, MA, LPC, LCMHC, RPT-S works with families during and after divorce. She is the owner of Rocky Mountain Counseling Services and Lighthouse Counseling Services.

This article was originally published at Reprinted with permission from the author.