From teething, to play dates gone awry, to less-than-stellar report cards, it seems the worries of parenting are never-ending. And if you're considering divorce, or going through one, this may ring especially true as you worry how your child will adjust to this enormous shift in her world. A child's feelings and behaviors during a divorce depend on her stage of development, according to Dr. Karen DeBord, a child development specialist at North Carolina State University. The good news is that how you and your partner respond can make a huge difference in your child's overall adjustment during an often-tumultuous time.
Your baby doesn't understand the conflict you and your partner are experiencing, but he may react to shifts in your energy level or mood, notes Dr. DeBord. Children in infancy may have a loss of appetite, upset stomach or a fretful or anxious mood, she says. Ease this transition for your little one by keeping routines as normal as possible, keeping calm, seeking help from friends, and maintaining warm contact with your child, she suggests.
Your toddler or preschooler doesn't understand what divorce is, but he's aware that one parent is not as active in his life, says Dr. DeBord. Your child may react to your divorce by having nightmares, crying, clinging, showing irritability or becoming aggressive and angry toward the parent he lives with. It's key that both you and your partner stay involved at this age, says Dr. JoAnn Hoza, director of psychological and clinical services at Hope Haven Clinic and Family Center in Jacksonville, Fla. "In general, toddlers need regular interactions with both parents to foster and maintain their attachments. Interactions should occur in a variety of contexts: feeding, playing, diapering, soothing, putting to bed, etc...Parents need to be able to communicate and share information with each other to provide continuity of care." And provide some extra TLC to your toddler or preschooler. "At this age, parents must make children their first priority, talk to them about their feelings, and spend extra time with them, which is crucial to their overall sense of belonging and maintaining their own feelings of being cared-for and loved," notes Mia Brousse, a licensed clinical social worker practicing in the Greater Boston area in Mass.
If your child is in elementary school, chances are good that she has a concept of what divorce is, and that you and your former spouse don't love one another the same way as before. "School-age children are more aware of what's going on and are learning to better understand and express their feelings," says Dr. Hoza. "They may feel responsible for the divorce and need to be reassured that the divorce is a problem between the parents that they were not able to work out, and it's not something the child caused. Children at this age may try to fix the problem." Dr. Hoza also notes that younger elementary-age children feel the loss of the family as a unit and may experience sadness or crying episodes, and may have fantasies about you and your ex-spouse reconciling, while older elementary-age kids are more likely to feel anger or choose one parent over the other. DeBord recommends talking to your school-age child about her feelings, answering all questions about changes taking place, and being sensitive to signs of depression or fear (and seeking help if these go on for an extended period or seem more intense than average).
Your teen may react to your divorce by becoming angry or disillusioned, feeling abandoned, or displaying extreme behaviors (i.e., either acting moralistic or engaging in high-risk activities like drugs, shoplifting or skipping school), observes DeBord. Also present in your teen's mind is the looming future and uncertainty about the major milestones of young adulthood. "Divorce can create anxiety about a teen's future: Who will buy me my first car? Who will pay for college? Will I also fail in relationships? Can I really trust anyone?" Dr. Hoza notes. She recommends striking a delicate balance when communicating, being careful not to use your teen as a confidante -- but not lying about the realities of the divorce, either. Brousse echoes this wisdom: "For older children, it's critical to avoid blaming the other spouse or providing too many personal details of the parental split. Remaining neutral and aiming to remain amicable in front of teens is helpful in reducing the impact of any confusion, guilt or fear a teen may be experiencing at this time."