To the "Better Parent": How your child perceives divorce

07/06/2017 01:48 am ET

To the Better Parent,

A father is seeking help via an online support group. His ex left with their young child and is blocking all efforts of this father to maintain contact with their child. In two paragraphs, this father expresses palpable emotions of fear and speaks words of sheer panic at the possibility of losing his child. The fact that this is not an isolated case is the inspiration of this letter.

When one parent states they want a divorce, a common question from the other parent is “what about the children”. Thinking about how divorce will impact your child is a valid concern. This is true for most parents.

A common theme across all culture, genders, races and SES (socio-economic status) is parents want what is best for their child. Due to numerous FB pages, legislation, sites and support groups addressing parental concerns in custody, divorce and especially high conflict cases, we may surmise an exception to this social rule.

To the Better Parent, this is how your actions come into play.

To a child, divorce is much more than a legal matter; this is their entire world being ripped apart and thrown on the ground in pieces. Children of all ages are aware of the actions and events in their family especially when things are turned upside down. Each age group faces different challenges as indicated in their responses.

Ages 0-3

This age group is preverbal and we need to rely on data. As the Better Parent, undoubtedly, you are aware of the vast research existing; addressing the father/child and mother/child relationship including literature supporting overnights with both parents.

Ages 4-7

Some parents may think young children do not understand what is happening. These responses show that there is a keen sense of awareness with their surroundings and what is happening in and to their family. Here are the words of your child in this age group:

"Divorce has lots of anger and it causes hurt.”

"They don't like each other."

“This is all very confusing. I am soooo confused.”

“Yelling together at each other”

"When I think of you and Daddy not living together, I feel so sad. I do not understand why you got divorced. Sometimes I dream about Dad being sad. About not having you around. I wish that you didn't get a divorce."

Ages 8-12:

This age has the emotional capacity to deal with everything yet, they are still quite limited. They may feel anger at one or both parents or choose sides. This is how your child describes divorce:

“Divorce is really confusing to kids. Everybody thinks the kid understands and knows what’s happening, but I’d say just remember that kids don’t know and they don’t understand and they get confused because no one explains anything.” Boy, age 9.

“I am afraid that my parents will forget about me when they start a new life.” Girl, age 10

A therapist asking a 3rd grader what he he wanted adults to know, if divorce makes a child feel lonely; he looked at therapist with sad eyes, hung his head and said softly, “Yes. That’s what I was trying to say. I just didn’t know how to say it.”

"They didn't really say they were splitting up, but I could just see it coming because they were always fighting," "Then, one day, when I got home from school, my dad and all his stuff was gone. I felt like they left me all by myself.” Girl, age 9.

"Divorce is like a thousand knives being thrown at one’s heart or a slow, painful ride through Horror Mountain". Girl, 12.

13-18 year-olds

Adolescents are more aware of adult problems and may accept the burden of emotional and money issues. Here is how your child perceives divorce/separation:

"I don't know why my mom and dad ever got married," "I used to think I was adopted because there was no way they could have stopped fighting long enough to have me!" Adolescent.

“The constant feeling of being ripped away from the people you love by the people who love you.” Adolescent.

“Mom and Dad expect me to ‘adjust,’ but the home I once knew is gone. Why can't they cut me some slack?” Adolescent.

"It makes us feel sad, and we don't like that feeling, because you make us feel like wanting to run away or something. It's very hard on our heart." Adolescent.

“I understand why you separate from my father, but do not separate from us.” Boy, age 16

College age

Going away to college is always a fun and exciting time. For your 18-year old son, the best part of this adventure is finally having a place to call home.

“When I went away to college I was soooo relieved. I finally had a home to call my home. No more going between houses. No more having to remember each thing I would need when going to one parents home from my other parents. I no longer had to deal with communicating between my parents who were unable to be civil to one another. Finally, I had one address. All my belongings were in one place. For the first time since the divorce I felt like I had a real home.” Male, age 18.

Some of these responses indicate your child may not fully understand the divorce/separation. Seemingly, there is a theme of confusion and feelings of being left behind.

To the Better Parent, please know you are one of the parents. If your child enjoyed a loving relationship with BOTH parents before the custody/divorce/high conflict began; your child should maintain the caring, loving and supportive relationship after the fact. Children are the innocent victims of divorce/separation. A relationship with BOTH parents is a child’s right and not a parental decision.

p.s. The best parent is BOTH parents


Shared Parenting Advocate


"GET OVER IT": Perspectives on divorce from young children. Article first published online: 4 SEP 2009 DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-1617.2009.01280.x

Divorce: Children describe the heartbreaking impact.

Shared Parenting Info


Shared Parenting Confessional


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