Children’s Reaction to Divorce: The Therapist’s Perspective
By Evelyn Smith of Divorce Lifeline
Evelyn Smith has worked with the Divorce Lifeline program for both children and adults, for 26 years. She is also in private practice in Bellevue where she works with adults, children, couples, and families. Divorce Lifeline can be contacted at: 206/624-2959. Evelyn’s private practice can be contacted at: 425/453-1243.
Lets talk a little about the kid’s reaction to divorce. I am going to talk about this by age of children and their stage of development because children react to their parents divorce by their stage of development. When I say the parent’s divorce please note that children really react to their parents separation. Kids really don’t care when the legal petition for divorce is final. What they care about is when one parent moves out.
Lets talk first about preschoolers. Now remember preschooler’s are effected by a lot of things when the family goes through divorce because there are a lot of other changes going on. Moms going back to work or going back to school, the child may move and if the child moves, unlike an adult, everything in a child’s life moves. If an adult moves the adult probably stills has the same job, they can make friends in the neighborhood, etc. If a child moves this usually means going to a new school, losing is neighborhood friends and everything that looked familiar to him. The whole world looks different. A preschooler is particularly susceptible to this may react to change even with positive change by regression. They may cling more to parents and be afraid that the parent will leave them or will be afraid that the parent is spending more time away. They may be afraid that if they go with one parent over the weekend the other parent won’t be there when they get back or that they won’t return to the other parent. They may have a lot of fears around loss and losing people. Preschoolers often have physical complaints. They particular complain about tummy aches and aches in their arms a legs. Preschoolers also can have a lot of guilt because they have inadequate language to understand what’s going on. They tend to see themselves as the center of the universe and so anything that goes terrifically right or wrong must be they’re doing somehow. Preschoolers can also be pretty aggressive when they are all upset and anxious and this can be a particular problem in daycare where they can be aggressive and then start getting a negative response from daycare and start having a negative view of themselves. Parents, unfortunately are often so worn out that they are impatient with preschoolers going through this process and this a course only makes things worse.
6 To 8 Year Olds
6 to 8 year old children are more focused outside the family but they have a lot of sadness when they are experiencing a family divorce. 6 to 8 year olds will often do a lot of crying especially at night. Many 6 to 8 years old children have told me that they cry themselves to sleep at night. They want desperately to reunite their families but they want their family to be happy. If you ask a child this age if they want the family to be the way it was the last six months they may very well say 'oh no, I want it the way it was 2 years ago when we all went to Disneyland and we were happy.' Often children this age feel pulled apart by the parents and feel like they have to make a choice between one parent or the other and this is a very difficult position for kids to be in and something I urge parents to guard against because its very harmful to the child and to your relationship with the child. Kids this age often feel very powerless because decisions are being made that they have no voice in and it’s just an age when their trying to gain a lot of power. They are trying to learn how to do so many things and so it makes a difficult for them to feel their power that they need to be feeling at that point. It can certainly effect their school performance. Kids like can become depressed and have trouble focusing in school just like adults have trouble focusing at work. They can have difficulty performing in school. Unfortunately if you have a child 6 to 8 years old you have a first to third grader so they are learning the basics. If they are missing the basics they are going to have school difficulties later on. So I always urge parents if they have a 6 to 8 year old child who starts having trouble in school to get help for them right away so that they can get themselves back on their feet emotionally and academically so this doesn’t have long term consequences for them. Obviously all this can be worse if the child is already having problems when a separation takes place.
9 To 12 Year Olds
9 to 12 year olds also feel a lot of sadness as do their younger siblings but they feel more anger especially towards the parent who wants the divorce. A child this age may also feel the need to protect the parent. They may feel that one parent is particular vulnerable and that they need to protect them. They will even miss out on some of their appropriate developmental activities to stay with they parent. They may withdraw from friends or from. So you have to be aware of what activities your child is participating in. If your suddenly realizing that what their doing is video games, t.v., and not playing with their friends, you might want to explore this. 9 to 12 year olds can also be much more aggressive. Hitting their brother, fights in school, lots of difficulty with aggression. They may need some help with expressing their anger about what's happening within the family so that it doesn't effect them so much outside the family. Kids this age can also can have difficulties with school performance and again as soon as they get some help with that the better so that they don't fall behind and develop a negative self concept about their ability to learn.
Adolescents want to separate from the family, not vice versa. They are older when parents divorce and so they may have seen the family as happy and then the parents separated and they feel confused and they don't understand correctly what went on. They may worry about future relationships. There might have been a lot of anger and a lot of disagreement from the parents for a long time so then they may not have any models for how to have good relationships. Either way they can worry a lot about relationships for themselves and about that possibility of them ever getting married. Sometimes they feel like they don't know what is really real or hope to have a good relationship. They also could have a lot of anger and feel like their parents haven't lived up to the ideals that they have tried to instill in their kids. They may also feel like they need to take on many parental tasks, such as caring for children and adolescence do give up some of their own developmental tasks. I think parents need to be careful that kids don't give up to many developmental tasks. It can be very good for kids to carry responsibility but if they are not participating in activities after school because they need to get home and care for a younger sibling or their choosing not to go to a college out of town because their to concerned about one parent being depressed and home alone that's not a good thing. Kids this age can also be very embarrassed by parents divorcing, particularly if there is some sort of public thing or if the police are called or something like that, they can get very embarrassed by what's happening inside the family. Parents divorce can also slow up or speed up an adolescence sexual development. This may be partly because adolescence are witnessing their own parents maybe start dating again, etc… obviously interested in the opposite sex and it's makes them embarrassed and they don't want to think about it or it can speed up their sexual development and they also can become involved alcohol or drugs and both of these things are made a lot easier by the fact that adolescence may not have as much supervision when parents are going through divorce because parents are stretched pretty thin between working and taking care all those household needs plus trying to have some kind of a social life themselves. Adolescence also have all those hormones working and they also have had other losses by the time they reach adolescence they may have had grandparents that they loved died, friend s that may have been car accidents or friends that have moved cross country, they may have just broken up with their boyfriend or girlfriend or might not be getting along with them and having those hormones coursing through their systems so adolescence are quit subject to sudden depression as well as one that your aware of. So with adolescents, you need to be particularly aware of the signs of depression. They're not hanging out with friends or eating a lot or eating nothing, grades dropping, not sleeping well, their not looking well, their anger all the time, etc… you need to really be aware of these things and make sure an adolescent gets help when they are showing the signs of depression.