Like Teri I am a child of divorce. I have a clear memory of my parents separation and divorce 32 years later. I remember what thoughts ran through my head, what questions I had, which ones I asked and which ones I did not. I remember looking to my brother for guidance on how to respond, but he is almost 8 years older than me. He felt differently than I did. He needed different information than I did.
It is very important to know that while all children are impacted by divorce, it impacts children very differently at different ages. Children have different stages of development and impact will vary depending on what developmental stage the child is in. While all development is individual to the child, the following summary will help you and your co parent understand how your child my be impacted by your divorce.
Infant to 2 years old- Infants depend on parents for meeting their needs. When their needs are met consistently, they are able to develop trust in others. Toddlers form healthy attachments to caregivers during 8-18 months of age. It is important during your separation that you keep routine as consistent as possible. The toddler will feel the loss of a primary caregiver. You may see your baby show sleep disturbances, clinginess, and crying. During these times it is best to provide opportunities for both parents to provide physical comfort and consistent routine. Communication between co parents is essential at this stage since the child cannot speak for themselves.
Ages 2-4- Preschool aged children are developing more independence, have verbal skills to express feelings and needs and cam keep the absent parent in their minds to comfort themselves. Children of this age may interpret the loss of contact with a parent as abandonment. They may feel responsible for the separation. They often have fears about their needs being met (i.e.: who will braid my hair when I am at Dad's? or who will feed me my pancakes in the mornings at Moms?) During this time your preschooler may show signs of regression (toilet training accidents, wanting older soothing toys like blanket, baby talk), anxiety at bedtime, fear of abandonment, will seek out physical touch from parent, and have more tantrums. You can offer comfort to this age child by providing physical comfort like cuddling, hugging, or holding hands. When regression occurs, be patient and non shaming. The child will most likely return to age appropriate behavior after s/he figures out their new routine. These children will adapt better through frequent visits with the other parent. These visits need to be as routine and expected as possible.
Ages 5-8- Early school aged children are developing peer relationships and making progress on their moral development. These children may feel responsible for their parents' divorce. They will very likely have fantasies of parental reunification long after the divorce is final and even after a parental remarriage. These children have a fear of abandonment and a longing for the absent parent. You may see your child show overt signs of grief such as sadness or anger. They may feel rejected by the parent who left the home. You may see changes in eating and sleeping patterns or behavioral problems. This age child has loyalty conflicts as seen by taking sides, struggles with transfer during visits, and getting used to being back home after visits. If this child is the oldest of your children, s/he may try to take on the role of the departing parent. You can help this child by providing opportunities to express his/her feelings and reassurance that s/he is not responsible for the break up. Give this child permission to love both parents. You cannot accomplish this when you call the other parent names or blame the other parent. Read books about divorce and feelings with your child. Enroll the child in extra curricular activities to focus energy in a healthy way and detach from parental problems. This child benefits from spending time with each parent.
Ages 9-12- This child has developed an increased awareness of self. At this age, your child is trying to fit in with other peers. These children tend to show anger about the separation. They are likely to take sides and place blame on a parent who caused the separation. They tend to think in black and white and think one parent is all good or all bad. They also may feel responsible for the separation. You may see your child show intense anger, have physical complains such as head aches or stomach aches. They may become overactive or perfectionistic to avoid thinking about the separation. They may feel ashamed about the divorce, or feel different from their peers. You can help these children by providing many opportunities to express their feelings. Spend time reassuring them that they are not responsible for the divorce, give them permission to love both parents, allow them to become familiar with spirituality, and provide a neutral adult who they can talk to who is not related to either parent. Watch movies about divorce and talk about it with your preteen. I like " Taking the Duh out of Divorce" by Trevor Romain.
Ages 13-18- At this age, your child is establishing his or her identity and sense of self in relation to rules and regulations. Teens may feel embarrassed by a family break up. They may idolize one parent or completely de-idealize a parent they had once looked up to. The later aged teen places peer needs ahead of family and may not want to visit the non resident parent. You may see your teen withdraw from family, have difficulty concentrating, engage in high risk behaviors, or worry about their own ability to have successful future relationships. To help your teen, be consistent with limits balanced with with more freedom and choices. Let them have input about their visitation but do not burden them by having the responsibility to decide custody and or schedule. At all ages, communication with the co-parent is key. You may be tempted to disconnect from your former spouse and allow important parental communication to occur through your teen. Resist this temptation because it often leads to child manipulation. Teens need to trust that even though their parents are divorces, parents are still in charge.
The most successful divorces occur when both parents can co-parent well. This is the case for all ages of children. If you are having difficulty co -parenting or if your child is experiencing distress over your divorce, please call one of the therapists here at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. Please check back all week as we continue to talk about supporting your child through your divorce.
Adapted from Liana Lowenstein's Creative Interventions for Children of Divorce
Written by Alexa Griffith, LMHC, LCAC, NCC, RPT
Alexa Griffith, LMHC, LCAC, NCC, RPT is a licensed therapist and Registered Play Therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. Alexa enjoys doing marriage counseling, individual counseling, couples and relationship counseling. Alexa also does play therapy, family counseling, child counseling, and adolescent counseling. Imagine Hope serves the Indianapolis area, including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield