If divorce is confusing for adults then you know it’s even more confusing for kids. What you need is an age by age guide in helping children understand divorce.
0 to 5 Years
At this stage, a child is a baby or toddler. They have a major dependence on parents and caretakers for all of their needs, as they are not old enough to feed, clothe and take care of themselves. Children of this age can’t understand complex situations or anticipate future situations. They don’t really understand their own feelings at such a young age.
Some of your 0 to 5-year-old child’s greatest concerns will be which parent will they live with, who will take care of them and possibly where will Fluffy the cat live. These are about the only issues you need to cover with a young child and make sure that they realize you and your ex-spouse will live in different homes, but each will spend quality one-on-one time with the child and each parent still loves them.
Children at a preschool age are just beginning to develop some independence, although they are still highly dependent on parents and caretakers for their needs. At this age, they have a limited ability to understand things like cause and effect and still can’t think ahead to the future happenings. Preschoolers may have an understanding that the world revolves around them and the fine line between reality and fantasy can be blurred at times. They have some ability to think about their own feelings, but can’t usually communicate with you about them.
For example, preschool children may leave one parent’s house, go to the other parent’s house and ask immediately upon arrival if the other parent is home. They know they just left the other parent but can’t see far enough ahead to remember that for maybe a half hour or so drive. They will need lots of reminders with lots of love to get through this stressful time in their lives.
Signs of distress in preschoolers such as fear or anger may appear. These feelings can manifest themselves in the form of anxiety, whining, clinging or just being generally irritable. Preschoolers may experience problems sleeping all night as they did before.
Children of this age can develop many inaccurate ideas about divorce’s causes and effects. For example, if Dad is the one who leaves the family home, they often see if as Dad left them, not that Dad left Mom. They need to understand from both parents that they made the decision to live apart on purpose and it’s an adult decision.
Preschoolers need simple explanations such as who will live where, who they will live with, who will be the caretaker and how often they will see the other parent on a regular basis.
6 to 8 Years
At the age of 6 to 8 years, children have a bit more ability to think about their feelings and actually talk about them. This age group of children has a broader understanding of what is going on around them in their world but may not understand the complexities of divorce. At this age, children are forming friendships outside of the home as friends and schoolmates become an important part of their lives.
Children in this age group may think the parent is divorcing them and they will never see them again. They may also try to play matchmaker and want their parents to get back together, as it did work when they were younger.
9 to 11 Years
As children reach this age group, they have more ability to understand, think about and talk about their feelings on all aspects of divorce. Their circle of relationships outside the family dynamic includes friends, teachers and coaches and is more developed. These items lead to a larger factor in planning the child’s time and activities. Children 9 to 11 years of age may still tend to see things in black and white only and may assign blame to one parent for the split up.
Many children in this age group place blame on one parent or the other and they can have outward displays of anger, fear, sadness or distress as they are missing one parent. The children in this group need the reassurance that they didn’t cause the divorce and that it was an adult decision, which they can’t influence. The older children in the 9 to 11 age group can discuss their feelings openly, but many choose to keep them bottled up and not to speak about their feelings at all. The best approach is to say something like “Some kids feel, angry, afraid or sad when their parents divorce,” instead of something like “Are you sad?” The first approach opens a window for them to talk to you and isn’t as direct, so you may get better results with it.
12 to 14 Years
Kids at this age have a better understanding of divorce as a whole and they can take part in discussions and ask pertinent questions to further their understanding of the events. They will desire more independence and start questioning parental authority as their relationships outside the family grow and become much more important to them.
Anger and irritability are common at this age and it can be directed at both parents or the one that moved out. Teenagers can be moody anyway, so it may be hard to gauge if it is indeed because of a divorce.
Solutions to Survive Divorce with Children of Any Age
Keep the lines of communication open with the children and answer any questions they may have on their level of understanding and often. Make sure they know that both parents love them and that they spend time with both parents. As the children get older, you can enlist them in more extracurricular activities to keep their minds busy and give them less time to ponder the situation. This aspect will also help with a child’s self-esteem and encourage them to reach out to others without withdrawing from the world.
Kathleen E. Shaul is a highly-skilled divorce and family attorney based in St. Louis, Missouri. She has been practicing family law in St. Louis since 1995 and is dedicated to providing the highest quality legal representation for families. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.