Caregiver divorce or separation can affect a child’s mental health, academic performance, and daily routine. However, parents and caregivers can take steps to reduce this impact and help their children through the change.
Divorce can lead to feelings of grief and loss in children, even when the separation is amicable. The child’s age at the time of their caregivers’ separation may influence their understanding and reaction to the change.
This article will explore the impact of divorce on children of all ages, looking into the emotional, behavioral, and developmental challenges they may face during this difficult period and how to help children through a divorce.
When caregivers decide to separate, a child’s world may feel as though it has turned upside down. Changes in a child’s behavior typically occur within the first year of the divorce, although the emotional impact may last significantly longer.
Below are some ways that caregiver divorce can affect children.
Mental health difficulties
Grief and sense of loss
According to the charity, Young Minds, children may experience a profound sense of loss as they accept the fact that their families will no longer be the same.
They may grieve the absence of a unified family unit, even if they also feel relief in situations, such as separations due to violence.
New perceptions of relationships
They may feel reluctant to start committed relationships, see fewer benefits to a marriage, or be more accepting of alternatives to marriage.
Loss of routine and predictability
Divorce can cause significant changes to a child’s daily routine. The familiar patterns of family life, such as meal times, bedtime routines, and family outings, may change.
Changes in eating habits
Children who experience mental health difficulties due to caregiver separation may also show changes in eating habits and weight levels.
Emotional stress due to a divorce can
According to the Child Mind Institute, children may regress when coping with their caregivers’ divorce or separation.
This may involve reverting to behaviors typical of a younger age, even though the child has already surpassed these developmental stages.
Children of different ages have varying cognitive abilities, emotional understanding, and coping mechanisms, influencing how they perceive and respond to their caregivers’ divorce.
A 2016 article suggests that, among other factors, a child’s age and developmental stage may influence the effects of divorce. The article’s authors summarize the following potential reactions due to a child’s age:
- Infants: Very young children do not have the cognitive capacity to understand the concept of divorce but may still react to changes in routine. They may be fussier, more irritable, and experience separation and stranger anxiety.
- Toddlers: Toddlers may experience regression, eating or sleep disorders, and increased separation anxiety due to caregiver separation.
- Preschoolers: Preschoolers may also experience sleep or eating disorders and regression. Children at this age may blame themselves for their caregivers’ separation and may experience nightmares or a fear of abandonment.
- School-aged children: Children in this age range may blame themselves for their caregivers’ separation. They may exhibit behavioral changes, such as withdrawal or aggression, and emotional changes, such as feelings of abandonment.
- Teenagers: Older children and teenagers may be able to understand the reasons for the divorce but may still have difficulty accepting it. They may experience anger, resentment, substance misuse, poor academic performance, and suicidal ideation.
Caregivers can take steps to reduce the impact of divorce on children. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) suggests the following ways for caregivers to help children through a divorce:
- Be honest: Both caregivers should tell the child about the separation sooner rather than later.
- Reassurance: Reassure children that the divorce is not their fault. Be clear that both caregivers still love them and will continue to be there for them.
- Avoid conflict: Minimize conflict in front of children. Arguments between caregivers can be distressing and confusing for kids and may make them feel that they have to choose a side.
- Be patient: Understand that children might need time to process the changes. Be patient and give them the space they need to cope.
- Validate their feelings: Acknowledge children’s emotions and let them know that feeling sad, angry, or confused is okay.
Some children may need additional support during or after the divorce. Parents and caregivers can seek help from a pediatrician or a mental health professional who specializes in working with children and families.
Caregivers may choose to seek help from a healthcare professional if they notice the following signs persisting for an extended period:
- severe and ongoing emotional distress
- academic difficulties
- withdrawal from activities and friends
- extreme behavior changes
Divorce can affect many areas of a child’s life, including their mental health, social interactions, and academic performance. The child’s age at the time of their caregivers’ separation may also influence how they react to the divorce.
Younger children may have difficulty understanding it while older children may have difficulty accepting it, even when they understand the reasons for the separation.
Caregivers can offer support, good communication, and understanding to help a child navigate the challenges that divorce will present.