The Impact of Divorce on Young Children
Many adults assume that children, from birth to five years of age, aren’t really affected by divorce. Because they don’t understand it, then it must not be a big deal. Sadly, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you have an infant, toddler, or preschooler, and you are going through a divorce (or about to), it’s important to understand the impact it may have on them.
Stress affects people of all ages – from a newborn baby to an elderly adult. And let’s face it – divorce is almost always very stressful. For children, divorce creates a significant disruption in their routine and home life. What was once predictable is now uncertain. Their basic sense of security and safety can be impacted as they wonder where they will live and who’s going to tuck them in at night.
If there is fighting, yelling, breaking things, or other chaos going on as well, infants and young children can become very anxious. It is not uncommon for them to regress during such upheaval in the home. They may exhibit more signs of illness, or become unusually fussy or irritable. If you are particularly anxious or distressed, your child will pick up on it and will often feel anxious and distressed as well. Your infant may be less responsive to your attempts to soothe him.
Toddlers may find divorce particularly confusing. They recognize that one parent is gone from the home, but they have no idea why. They may become moody, anxious, or more aggressive. They often will act out more frequently as a way to express the troubling feelings they can’t put into words. Separation anxiety may be a frequent issue for both infants and toddlers during this time.
Preschoolers, unlike infants and toddlers, often believe they somehow caused their parents’ divorce or separation. They often think it’s because they behaved badly or weren’t good enough. Or, they may believe that something they said in anger made one of the parents leave. As a result, they often think it’s their responsibility to fix it – to get Mom and Dad back together. And that’s a tremendous pressure for a young child to feel.
Fear of abandonment can be significant for preschoolers during a divorce. They may experience a lot of sadness, especially if they were particularly attached to the parent that is no longer living in the home. Like toddlers, they may act out their feelings of hurt, fear, and grief. They may also get very angry at the parent they believe is responsible for the situation. While they may show their anger with aggressive behavior, they may also become more withdrawn and depressed.
How well your children adjust during and following a divorce will be impacted by several factors. First, the better their relationship with both you and the other parent, the better their adjustment will be. Second, they will fare much better if at least one of you (and preferably both) is able to adequately attend to their needs during the divorce. Third, the less conflict between you and the other parent, the better off your children will be. Fourth, a long, drawn out divorce will take a greater toll on them than a shorter one.
Don’t underestimate the positive affect you can have on your children as you go through your divorce. Yes – it is going to be very challenging for you, and you may want to shout, scream, cry for hours, or break every dish you own. But the best thing you can do is find a way to keep your emotions (and actions) from spiraling out of control in front of them. Strive to put their needs first and give them the attention they need during this difficult time.