What children understand about divorce by age group

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Divorce is a touchy subject with children and especially for parents as they themselves adjust to their situation.  Managing and discussing this traumatic situation with children will vary widely depending on the age of the child.  Reaction can be quite different for each age group and can range from sadness to anger and feelings of anxiousness.  Knowing how to reach out to these age groups will help in their adjustments and leave them feeling that they will still be cared for by both parents.

Infants and Toddlers

Even infants can feel tension between parents when they are going through a divorce and if they are not comforted they can become clingy with irritable and angry outbursts.  Infants and toddlers during this transition need structure and consistency in their daily routine.  Nap times, meals and play dates should not be disrupted and they may need additional hugs, comfort and attention.

Pre-School – Early Elementary Years

Pre-school children and those in the early elementary years of school may act out and start throwing tantrums.  The non-custodial parent may want to increase their visits and spend more time giving re-assurance and affection.  They have feels of insecurity and they need to know that they will not be abandoned.  Early elementary children may act out and devise ways to get the  parents back together.  Remember the movie Parent Trap!

Adolescents and Early Teens

This age group are more easily embarrassed and angered and they may act out in a hostile manner.  They may embellish health issues like headaches or stomach pains and if they have an existing illness like asthma, it may worsen.  It is possible they could start lying, be manipulative and even start with minor stealing.   It’s important to communicate as much as possible and keep them informed of ongoing developments in the divorce.  They like to think they are adults so share as much information with them as you can.  Keep a close eye on their activities inside and outside school and be consistent with house rules.  Family counselling may be a consideration for this age group.


Older teenagers have a much better understanding of divorce but they can still act out immaturely.  After all, they are teenagers!  They may hide behind a mask so try and draw them out and encourage them to talk about how they are feeling about the divorce.  Be on the lookout for signs of depression such as dropping out of school activities, not hanging out with their peers or abusing alcohol or other substances.  Don’t encourage a male teenager to be the head of the household and a female teenager should not be relegated to the caretaker of younger siblings.  They are still teenagers, not adults and they should be allowed to behave as teenagers.  Let them decide on when and how much visitation they want with the non-custodial parent.  Be flexible if they want to move their living arrangements back and forth between parents.


It is important for children of divorce and their parents to have relationships that are open with lots of healthy and effective communication.  There is no reason that children of divorce cannot develop into normal, healthy adults with successful and healthy lifestyles and careers.

Keeping Communication Positive

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A divorce or separation can be an emotionally trying time for all involved, but it is important to keep communication between separated parents positive. Even though talking with your ex may feel like the last thing you want to do, an open dialogue can keep everyone informed about what is going on, and keep the children from getting stuck in the middle.

Keeping the lines of communication open when it comes to raising children creates a way for both parents to be present for extracurricular activities and maintain active roles in the children’s lives. It also allows both parents to identify any issues that need to be dealt with and anticipate changes to the children’s schedules or the co-parenting plan.

When talking with your ex, two basic strategies can help you keep your personal issues out of the dialogue.

1. Focus strictly on the kids.

It can be difficult at first to figure out what is a real issue that needs to be discussed and what’s not, and it can be tempting to bring up the issues that contributed to your separation or divorce every time you have to communicate with your ex — but don’t.

When it comes to the kids, it’s important to start viewing the other parent as a co-owner of a business (the business that is raising your children). Yes, it seems cold and impersonal, but that’s the point. Keeping communication short, matter of fact, and straightforward will go a long way toward a positive experience for all of those involved. Ask yourself if you would be comfortable having that conversation during your lunch hour if your boss could overhear. If the answer is no, it’s time to reevaluate. Table the conversation for a few days if possible, or write an email and let it sit overnight before sending so that you can look at it once you’ve calmed down.

2. Communicate in writing.

The organization of divorced parents can be tough, and if at all possible, both sides should put everything in writing to avoid miscommunication. Having the kids’ schedules somewhere easily accessible makes it possible for either parent to check for conflicts or receive reminders about your child’s upcoming game without having to deal directly with the other parent. Online tools that let you keep track of shared expenses, maintain a list of important contacts like the pediatrician or cheerleading coach, and create a joint online photo album keep the focus squarely on family and the best interests of the children.

Keeping these two guidelines in mind can help separated parents’ conflicts from interfering with the children’s happiness and well-being and make the situation as positive as possible.