How Kids Experience Divorce at Different Ages

How Kids Experience Divorce at Different Ages

by Lisa Davis, June 10, 2021

Splitting up with a partner is never easy and it’s a decision very few people make lightly. This process of filing for divorce gets even more complicated when you have kids. How can you be honest about the end of your relationship without exposing your child to trauma or adult discussions that they aren’t ready for?

Kids experience divorce differently as they grow older. The social-emotional development of your child will play a role in how they perceive your divorce and cope with it. Here is how their perceptions change by age and how psychologists recommend easing the transition.

Toddlers and Infants Have Memories

Oftentimes, people say the best age for a child to go through a divorce is when they are young. Kids who are three or under don’t have much cognitive function yet and won’t have fond memories of parents that are together. If you don’t remember what you have, then it’s hard to mourn what you lost. 

However, it’s a misconception that when young kids experience divorce, they won’t remember it. Studies have found that three-year-olds remember events that happen when they are two. By the time they are a little older, they may forget the events or they may have lingering emotions about them. They might experience feelings of trauma about certain places or people, even if they don’t understand why. 

Toddlers might also act out if they pick up on the symptoms of divorce, for example:

  • They might be fussy or throw a tantrum if a parent isn’t around.
  • They may become more clingy around a parent they live with.
  • They may miss developmental milestones or regress. 

For a toddler, they recognize that someone that was normally there for them is gone. If the parents were fighting in front of the child, they might experience trauma and regress in development out of fear and confusion. 

Preschoolers Need Concrete Information

As kids get older and reach ages three to six, they will start to ask more questions about the divorce process. They aren’t ready for esoteric discussions about the nature of love and likely won’t understand why you and your partner are divorcing. Instead, they need concrete facts and simple details that they can hold on to. 

John Hoffman at Today’s Parent recommends sticking to the basics: 

  • Which parent is moving out?
  • Where will the child live if they are moving?
  • How often will they see each parent? 

Hoffman says parents of young children should stick to short answers and wait to see if their kids have any more questions. If they don’t have any questions at the time, let them know that you can answer any future ones they think of. 

Elementary-Age Kids Feel Powerless

By the time a child is brought into the divorce conversation, their parents have typically made up their minds. The child might pick up on fights or parental distancing, they might even know about a separation, but they are rarely asked about the divorce. Parents often hide their troubles from kids because they don’t want to traumatize them. They want to work out their problems without bringing in their children. However, in some cases, your child might feel shocked or blindsided by the news. 

“Children have no option in divorce and may feel completely out of control,” says Dr. Gail Gross, parenting and education expert. “So, when children experience such distress, they may display regressive or aggressive behavior.”

Oftentimes, when kids experience divorce, they turn to school to express their frustrations. School is a safe place outside of the home but also where kids spend most of their time. Kids can act out in different ways. Some might withdraw into themselves, refusing to talk to others or do their work. Others may become aggressive or disobedient because they are angry. Still others might try to get attention constantly.

This is how kids process their emotions and try to gain control. They might not be able to change what goes on at home, but they can control how they act at school and around others.

Older Kids Blame Themselves

As a child gets older, approaching their preteen and teen years, they will be able to understand the nuances of divorce more. They may have peers who have divorced parents or understand what some relationships don’t work out. However, these kids still have needs. Specifically, they need to know that both parents love them and will be there to support them after the divorce. 

“The absolute worst thing for a kid is if, after a divorce, a parent just isn’t involved,” says Dr. Scott Carroll, a child psychologist. “If you want to see a depressed kid, look at what happens when a parent doesn’t show up” 

Oftentimes, a child will blame themselves for the absence, Carroll explains. They will wonder what is wrong with them. What did they do? Why aren’t they enough? 

Middle school and high school can be difficult enough for kids. Puberty and the hormones that come with it aren’t nice to anyone. Adding divorce to the mixture can further escalate emotional anxiety and depression, leading to trouble in school or behavioral problems.

Kids of All Ages Can Benefit from Counseling

It’s not uncommon for well-meaning parents to overestimate the resiliency of their kids. Children are surprisingly good at hiding their feelings and trying to seem brave around their parents. However, as kids experience divorce they may need counseling from a professional. 

A divorce is a major change in your life and the lives of your kids. Kids who you think are too young to remember the divorce may benefit from meeting with a counselor. Even kids who went through a divorce years ago may need to meet with someone if they have unaddressed trauma or if the relationship with their parents is changing.  

“Even with really young kids, it is important to regularly initiate conversations about their emotional lives,” Catherine Pearson writes. “If you establish a habit of talking to them about their thoughts and feelings, they might be more likely to come to you when they are struggling in some way.” 

Counseling can teach kids how to understand their feelings and better communicate them, a skill they can use throughout their lives. This social-emotional intelligence can also prevent them from acting out in school and into their teen years. 

Family Resources Offers Family Counseling

If your family is going through a major life change, including the divorce of two parents, consider meeting with a counselor for help during this adjustment period. At Family Resources, we offer individual counseling for kids ages 6 to 17. We also offer family counseling for those who need it. Most of our counseling services are free or affordable. 

Our goal is to help you overcome communication roadblocks and address emotional trauma. We want your family to reconnect and grow stronger together. 

Learn more about our family counseling services to see how they can help your family.