How Divorce Affects Children

Divorce is, unfortunately, not uncommon in America today. Young children can be unaware of what’s going on around them or unable to process what’s happening until the separation is final. Parents frequently ask how divorce affects children and how they can better help their children understand what’s going on.

How Divorce Affects Children

The tricky business for newly separated parents is communication with their children. It’s important to do this in a way that they’ll be able to truly understand what “divorce” means. With the term “children,” we’ll focus on youngsters up to the age of 10. This particular population relies heavily on their parents for just about everything. As this article from Psychology Today points out, “Divorce shakes trust in dependency on parents who now behave in an extremely undependable way.” Explained differently: Divorce affects children in now they have to navigate a foreign landscape.

How to Help Your Children through a Divorce: Depending on Their Age

From infancy to five years old, the child’s only bond is with his/her parents or siblings. They certainly don’t have the cognitive ability to comprehend what “divorce” means. This age group is also very self-centered, so they may feel the divorce is because of something they did. Although they will experience feelings, they usually struggle with putting those emotions into words. Children of this age group may crave attention, have trouble sleeping, have more emotional outbursts (anger or sadness), and may also have trouble in school.


Parents should focus on routine and consistency. As this article by Today’s Parent explains, “Tots’ lives need to be anchored by their normal routines (meals, play, bath, bed) in the presence of a parent who is ‘there for them.’” (You could also consider working with a therapist who has experience working with children using play therapy.) Children of this age group need simple, concrete reasons for the divorce. Today’s Parent suggests using short, easy-to-understand answers to explain where the child will live and how his/her new life will proceed. Clarification for the child won’t come from a single conversation.

Although six to 10-year-olds are able to communicate their feelings and thoughts, this age group still lacks a solid understanding of divorce and what causes it. Their reactions will be fear, anxiety, anger, and/or sadness and the physical manifestations that go along with those emotions (such as lashing out at school). Some children may feel as if their parents are divorcing them and fantasize ways to make the family whole again. Other children may view one parent as “good” and the other as “bad.”

Quality Time

Parents should make a great effort to spend individual quality time with their children, explaining that the divorce is not because of something they did, and try to get them to talk about how they’re feeling. This age group still thrives on routines, so making a regular visitation schedule helps tremendously. Also, encourage the child to play with friends or join extracurricular groups.

Lastly, regardless of age, consider attending a family therapy session. These can help walk children through a divorce. The therapist can help navigate the family through this particularly tough time.  They can also offer suggestions on how to help the child process the separation and his/her thoughts and feelings.


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