Children of all ages react to divorce, and are influenced by the environment parents create before, during, and after divorce. The better that children can understand the concept of what is happening, the easier it is to integrate their fear and grief. This can help them adjust at any age; however, it is important to remember that children of different ages will have different understandings of what divorce means and they will react differently to divorce. The developing brain of early childhood can be very vulnerable to stress, and school-age children who are in the process of developing their own identities may be negatively impacted from the stress hormone cortisol that can change brain architecture and impulse control if sustained over a long enough period of time.
How Divorce Impacts Toddlers
Toddlers ages one through three have limited cognitive ability. They are confused about divorce. Further, they do not necessarily have the coping skills yet to address the alterations and adjustments. As a result, they can be more vulnerable to emotional problems later in life. Moreover, young children personalize their world; as a result, they may feel that their parents' divorce is their fault.
How Divorce Impacts School-Age Children
For school age children (ages 6-12), parental divorce can negatively impact education. This age group is still in magical thinking; they may hold out the wish that their parents will get back together. In this age group, children are still very egocentric and can feel responsible for not only their parents' separation, but for the possibility of a reconciliation. Children ages six through 12 grieve the loss of their parents' marriage. It is almost inconceivable that that their parents, that belong to them, are no longer living together, and that in fact, one parent is living apart.
Children have no option in divorce and may feel completely out of control. So, when children experience such distress, they may display regressive or aggressive behavior. School is the perfect environment in which to act out. Withdrawal, aggression, needy, and disobedient behavior can all be seen in the classroom. Daydreaming and not doing schoolwork are behaviors seen by the teacher by children of divorce. Also children ages 6-12 are old enough to understand that their parents have detached from one another. It is here that children criticize one parent or the other and might show their anger by deliberately taking sides.
Divorce is never easy for anyone involved. It is an emotionally challenging psychological journey for both parents and children to undergo. But in the end, the most important thing to remember is the vulnerability of your children. Therefore, your main job as the parent is to help your children adjust successfully, to be there for them, and to make sure they know they are loved.
In upcoming posts, I will share tips on how to help children in these different age groups deal with divorce.