Divorce and Children, No Matter Their Age

How Parents Interact During and After the Divorce

This is the single most important factor in determining how your children adjust to the divorce. Almost all divorcing couples experience a certain amount of hostility toward each other during their divorce, and that conflict sometimes continues following the actual divorce, while families adjust to new structures. But when conflict continues for years, the negative consequences for the children can be profound. The more intense the conflict between parents and the longer it lasts, the greater the potential for damage to children. 

Many factors that determine a child’s adjustment to divorce are beyond your control:

  • Research has shown that children under the age of five initially experience the most pain from parental separation, but over time they are better able to adjust to divorce than older children.
  • Boys appear to have more short-term difficulties, while girls are more likely to exhibit effects of a divorce over a longer period of time. 

You and your ex-spouse may be raising children together for years to come, and even if your children are grown, you will continue to be their parents for the rest of your lives. How you and your ex interact during and after the divorce may be the most important factor in determining how well your children adjust to the divorce. Working toward an effective co-parenting relationship from the moment you make the decision to divorce is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children.

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Your Child’s Perspective

Children love both parents, and see themselves as being part mom and part dad. When one parent attacks the other – even where no physical violence is present – children feel personally injured. 

Avoid discussing these subjects with and around your children

  • negative comments about the other parent (and their family and friends)
  • the divorce process and events leading up to it
  • money, especially in the context of child support (paid for children under 19 and not yet graduated from high school)
  • details of the other parent’s life or your children’s time with their other parent
  • the other parent’s relationships

You damage your children and inhibit their ability to adjust to their new situation when you put them in the middle between their parents.  

Tips for parents going through a divorce

  • never ask a child to keep secrets or to spy on their other parent
  • give your child the space and support to love both parents
  • if you have questions about parenting practices in the other parent’s home, check it out with the other parent before you discuss the situation with your children.  If a child reports an event that seems troubling, say, “I need to talk with your mom/your dad about that.” You can then gather necessary information, and you are sending a clear message to your child that you and their other parent are united where your children are concerned.

While it is crucial to support and listen to your children, children can often benefit from additional support and comfort from people other than their parents during and after divorce. Children are often highly attuned to a parent’s emotional state and children can take on the task of helping mom or dad to feel better — sometimes at the expense of their own emotional well-being. If a child has to help his or her parents, he or she may find it difficult to be completely open about what is going on and their experience of the divorce.  Both parents will likely be more emotionally fragile than normal as they find their own ways to heal and regroup after divorce, so look to outside resources, rather than children, for help.

Resources for Your Child and Family:

Information about helping children adjust to divorce is frequently available at the community level through child and family service agencies, and many therapists specialize in helping families transition through divorce.  Therapy provides a safe place for a child to speak openly and attend to his or her needs without having to worry about hurting a parent’s feelings. School teachers may be excellent sources of information about how well your child is adjusting outside of the home, and school counselors can be a good starting point for conversations about whether it would be helpful to your child to see  a therapist.