Strengthening Families Through Counseling, Education and Mediation

Parenting Apart: The Child’s Perspective

From a child’s perspective, the end of their parents’ marriage means the end of their world as they know it.  Children are highly dependent on their parents, and to lose one is experienced as a terrible loss.  They know that a parent is irreplaceable.

A primary reaction to your divorce is anger: how could you! Underneath the anger is a scared child who fears that he is losing everything he needs to support his growing up.

Even though divorce changes many things, each child needs to know that one thing will remain constant: Mom and Dad can still be counted on to be there.  The nature of the post-divorce relationship with each parent greatly affects the well-being of the child. When children feel secure in the knowledge that they can rely on their parents, they can shift their focus back to the important stuff of being a kid: going to school, playing with friends, participating in their activities.

Common misconceptions children have about divorce include:

-blaming themselves for their parents’ divorce

-believing that they are responsible to save their parents’ marriage

-believing that if they are ‘good’ enough their parents will get back together again

– feeling that they must pick a side and love one parent over another

-a fear that if their parents no longer love each other, there is a chance they will stop loving the child

A child’s response to divorce is colored by their age, gender and stage of development at the time of the separation.  Here are some ways to meet the needs of your children during divorce at different stages:

Birth to age 1: “Building a Secure Base”

-the baby is learning to trust her parents and build strong emotional bonds.  Consistency, familiarity and routine are important at this stage-as far as possible maintain an oasis of calm around you and the baby; spend ample time rocking, singing gentle lullabies and other soothing activities to calm both yourself and your infant

-ask for support and cooperation from nurturing family and friends to provide stability through the changes

-if you can, postpone the divorce proceedings till after the first year of life.  Call a truce and give yourself that time to bond with the infant

Age 1-3:  “Me Do It!”

-the toddler is learning to be independent, testing limits.  He experiences increased fears of separation and awareness of the absent parent.

-maintain order and routine for the toddler, providing a predictable environment with clear limits.  Nurturing bedtime routines are important at this stage for minimizing anxiety.

-if the child is comfortable with both parents, by the age of two occasional overnights in the other home are possible, but two nights in a row may be difficult until he is older.  Watch the temperament of the child to determine readiness to spend substantial time in another environment.

Age 3-5: “How Does the World Work?”

-the preschooler believes adults know everything and hold all power, and is acutely aware of the changes that divorce brings into her life.  The world becomes a strange place where everything is now different.  If one parent can disappear, the other might also go at any point.

-this age group is most likely to believe that they have done something to cause the divorce eg. My puppy chewed the couch, then Dad got mad and went away.

-soothing words, hugs, and time together on a regular basis are effective at this age for assuring your child that you will not abandon her.  Unexplained absences, even for a day, can seem like forever for the preschooler.  If she is in preschool or daycare, let teachers and caretakers know what is going on, and be on time to pick her up.

-engage in simple playtime together, using props and dolls for her to act out her perceptions of what is going on in her life.

-use words to convey security eg. I will be thinking of you while I am at work and will be right here to pick you up at 3.00pm.  Tell him what the plans are for the day and what he can expect.

-by age 4 the child will be able to manage weekends in the other home. If there is a joint custody arrangement, give your child permission to enjoy themselves at the other parent’s home, and let him know you will be waiting for him when he returns.   Do all you can to help him become familiar and comfortable with the new reality of his life.

Age 6-10: “I am Important, I Can Do Hard Things”

-at this age the child is learning to operate in two worlds, and facing daily challenges at school, physically, socially and academically.  His mind is on the divorce and it is hard to concentrate.  He may be irritable, distracted, withdrawn and emotionally overwhelmed. Boys in particular may cause trouble in the classroom at this age—communicate and work out a plan with his teacher.

-this age group typically experiences the most distress.  They see things in black and white, right and wrong, and tend to take sides.

-children of this age are beginning to understand relationships, but may still blame themselves for the divorce, with irrational explanations. The fear that Dad has left to make another family is dominant, and continued, consistent father-child contact is especially important at this age.  Assure your child that both parents will continue to be a part of his life, and he has permission to love both parents

-allow your child to express his sadness or anger about the changes in his life, and comfort him.

Age 11-13:  “Everything is Changing!”

-be prepared for any reaction from your young adolescent when you announce your divorce—sitting  quietly, screaming in defiance, running away.  This is a hazardous time for a child to experience divorce, and may involve acting out to alleviate their feelings of distress.  Denial is another coping mechanism.

-children of this age are also likely to ‘take sides’.  Encourage close relationships with both parents as far as possible

-best advice: hold your breath and try to keep your home as safe as possible with consistent family routines and rules.  Too much freedom is not helpful during this period of their life

-your preteens are watching your behavior closely, both the way you treat their other parent and new dating behavior.  Act with civility and self-respect.

Age 14-18: “Finding Out Who I Am”

-be prepared for an initial cool, almost detached reaction to your divorce. Children at this age are needing to develop a separate identity from their parents; it is not uncommon for a teenager to act mature but occasionally need to revert to dependent behavior

-encourage your child to maintain their grades, and participate in sports teams and afterschool activities

-allow for active involvement in structured family activities eg., family councils

-give lots of emotional support, providing opportunities for your teen to talk, share feelings and complaints.  Just listen.

-encourage contact with both parents; speak honestly to your older teen about your relationship but don’t get him caught between the two of you; help him to understand that you both have contributed in different ways to the end of the marriage

-avoid using your teen for emotional support, this is a burden.

-ask her for her ideas on how to best arrange time between both homes and try to implement them

Most children do not need therapy in the months and weeks after their parents’ separation.  What they need is clear, consistent and loving parenting every single day. However, some children do struggle and may need therapeutic assistance.  Signs to watch for include:

-regressing into less mature behavior, or failing to make developmental progress

-becoming clingy, anxious, withdrawn or sad

-dazed, preoccupied or unable to concentrate at school

-feeling worried, or ‘overburdened’ by parents’ concerns

-loss of interest in playing with friends or outside activities

– withdrawing into fantasy

The Children’s Bill of Rights in Divorce

If you can give your children these freedoms, you will have gone a long way toward fulfilling your responsibilities as a parent.  Every child whose parents divorce has

  1. The right to love and be loved by both of her parents without feeling guilt or disapproval.
  2. The right to be protected from his parent’s anger with each other.
  3. The right to be kept out of the middle of his parents’ conflict, including the right not to pick sides, carry messages or hear complaints about the other parent.
  4. The right to not have to choose one parent over the other.
  5. The right to not have to be responsible for the burden of either of her parents’ emotional problems.
  6. The right to know well in advance about important changes that will affect his life; for example, when one of his parents is going to move or get remarried.
  7. The right to reasonable financial support during her childhood and through her college years.
  8. The right to have feelings, to express her feelings, and to have both parents listen to how she feels.
  9. The right to have a life that is as close as possible to what it would have been if his parents had stayed together.
  10. The right to be a kid.    (Taken from The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive, NY: New York, Viking.  2004. Robert E. Emery)

Suggestion: Read When Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene and Marc Brown together with your child for more ideas on how to create a post-divorce living arrangement that supports healthy relationships including

–don’t question your child about your ex-spouses personal life

–be consistent as far as possible with rules and schedules in both homes

–allow your child to keep personal items in both homes so they can feel comfortable

–allow your child to take important or special things, for example a new toy, back and forth between homes

–create an easy-to-read calendar so they can see and anticipate time with each parent

–invest energy into being the best parent you can be when the child is with you, and don’t waste energy worrying about what the other parent is doing

–allow the child to choose what they want to call a stepparent


The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing With the Emotions So You and your Children Can Thrive. NY: New York, Viking.  2004. Robert E. Emery

What About the Kids: Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce.  NY: New York, Hyperion, 2003.  Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee.

Healing Hearts: Helping Children and Adults Heal From Divorce.  NV, Carson City: Gold Leaf Press.  1994.  Elizabeth Hickey and Elizabeth Dalton.

Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide For Changing Families.  MA, Boston: Joy Street Books. 1986.  Lauren Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.

Powered by WordPress | Designed by Elegant Themes